The joy of the holiday season is invariably tempered, for the incoming Rauner administration and the ongoing General Assembly, by the daunting challenges awaiting them in Springfield next month.
Fixing the fiscal mess is the top priority, but the to-do list also includes strengthening ethics measures, and there’s an ever-present need for more accountability, transparency and efficiency.
The shortcomings of our elected leaders in surmounting those challenges over the past decade-plus invites pessimism, but state lawmakers are also capable of surprising acts of bipartisan courage, like last year’s passage of a controversial pension reform bill.
It may not be constitutional — the Illinois Supreme Court is weighing the legal issues—but lawmakers finally bit the bullet during a special session last December to cast votes aimed at alleviating a crisis.
This year, in one of his final acts before relinquishing the office, Governor Pat Quinn has called another special session to consider a succession question: Should there be a special election in 2016 to let voters, not the new governor, decide who completes the second half of the comptroller’s term in the wake of Judy Baar Topinka’s death earlier this month.
The special session is set for Jan. 8, a few days before Governor-elect Bruce Rauner is sworn in and the new legislative session begins, and it figures to be a spirited and welcome exercise because, whenever possible, voters — not politicians — should determine who occupies statewide office.
The situation also raises another question voters should answer sooner rather than later: Whether to save money and improve efficiency by combining the state offices of comptroller and treasurer.
Topinka favored consolidation, which could save taxpayers $12 million a year, and supported a proposal in 2011 to consider mandating a merger by amending the Illinois constitution.
The Senate unanimously approved a voter referendum, but the House never took up the issue. “Give me a vote straight up or down,” Topinka reportedly asked Speaker Michael Madigan, but the House leader ignored the request, voicing concern that a single office would deprive the state of sufficient fiscal oversight.
For the record, the Better Government Association wholeheartedly supports the consolidation of government offices when it’s likely to eliminate duplication, expand services and save tax dollars. We call that “smart streamlining” and it’s the key to reducing Illinois’ most-in-the-country units of government.
Prime targets, along with a comptroller-treasurer merger, include a plethora of paper-pushing offices in counties like Cook, where there’s no justification for maintaining the stand-alone offices of treasurer, assessor, recorder of deeds, clerk and clerk of the courts.
Consolidations are also long overdue in counties with too many townships, and multiple park, library, school, fire protection, sanitation, water treatment, and yes — even mosquito abatement districts.
State lawmakers have given merger authority to a few local governments in recent years, but a fitting tribute to Topinka’s memory, and the right thing to do for beleaguered taxpayers, is to merge the offices of treasurer and comptroller, and then keep right on going by empowering local authorities to work with their constituents on sensible consolidations within their jurisdictions.
Since legislators are convening in early January anyway to discuss a protocol for replacing Topinka, Quinn could also ask them to weigh in on whether Illinois needs both a comptroller and a treasurer.
That would be a nice way to start the new year, honor Topinka’s memory, and take a significant step toward the better government we all deserve.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.