April brings showers, hints of spring and another baseball season, with legions of loyal Cubs and Sox fans hoping “next year” might be this year.
At the Better Government Association, we’re also following another “season”—the annual legislative session in Springfield.
As we head into the final innings, the box score indicates the General Assembly is playing “small ball”—moving ahead on bills aimed at eliminating a few more unnecessary units of government, expanding transparency, increasing civic engagement, and improving the criminal justice system.
But they’ve also committed a few errors, including one glaring miscue that would undermine the public’s right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.
This comes against a backdrop of much bigger issues, including a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, stacks of unpaid bills, perilous pension liabilities and Governor Rauner’s turnaround agenda. So there’s a lot of hardball ahead, and we’ll be watching closely.
On our good government agenda, a top priority is to defeat HB 3621, which would weaken the state’s open records law, the Freedom of Information Act.
The bill would prevent watchdogs and citizens from examining basic contract information—incentives, revenues and profits—on concerts, conventions, trade shows, athletic contests and other events at publicly owned venues.
Supporters of the measure claim they’re at a competitive disadvantage because private facilities don’t have to share that information.
But public arenas have done well over the years without secrecy, and the bill violates FOIA’s protection of the public’s right to know where tax dollars are going.
In practical terms the bill would prevent us from determining whether taxpayer backed facilities are being mismanaged by public officials who may be profiting personally or cutting sweetheart deals with cronies.
We want entertainment centers to be successful but not by operating in the dark.
We also opposed proposals to resurrect the state’s scandalized legislative scholarship program, and thankfully those bills died in committee.
On the affirmative side, the BGA is supporting legislation requiring local governments to post audits, bids, budgets, contracts and other documents online, and a bill that puts more teeth in the Open Meetings Act.
Our “smart streamlining” campaign includes proposals to facilitate the elimination of a Downstate township and small units of government in Cook, DuPage, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.
We’re also backing legislation to put civics education back in public high schools, a key to engaging the next generation of voters in the electoral process.
And we’re supporting two criminal justice reforms: Long-term preservation of police misconduct records, and an end to the automatic transfer of juvenile offenders to adult court.
Unfortunately, the legislature sidelined several other reform proposals—a constitutional amendment consolidating the state offices of treasurer and comptroller, a bill preventing departing lawmakers and staff members from lobbying the General Assembly for two years, a measure allowing the attorney general to empanel grand juries in corruption cases, and a plan to flag conflicts of interest by strengthening ethics statements—but we’ll revisit those issues later.
And we’ll keep working with other progressive groups and like-minded legislators to move the reform bills that are still alive around the bases and across the plate in time to score some runs for the better government we all deserve.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.