Most of the Springfield news this year features new Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s pitched battle with veteran Democrats over taxes, spending, pensions and a “turnaround agenda” designed, the governor says, to save Illinois from fiscal ruin, limit the power of public employee unions and improve the business climate.
There’s no agreement on any of those contentious issues yet, so the spring legislative session has lapsed into overtime, and it’s hard to predict when and how it’ll end.
Thankfully, the standoff didn’t poison the entire well, so lawmakers were able to address a number of issues on our Better Government Association reform agenda.
A top priority was to protect the Freedom of Information Act—the most important tool for watchdogs and regular citizens to keep an eye on government—so we vigorously opposed a bill that would have diluted FOIA by letting public officials hide details of their contract negotiations for events at taxpayer-supported entertainment venues.
“Following the money” is a key to preventing sweetheart deals that benefit connected insiders, so it’s heartening our “call to action” prompted hundreds of emails from constituents to their elected representatives, effectively halting the bill’s legislative progress.
We also appreciate House and Senate approval of a number of reforms in key areas, including:
- Transparency. One measure mandates more timely reporting of independent expenditures by groups involved in political campaigns, and another requires organizations that want to start charter schools to disclose ongoing investigations of their operations or board members.
- Accountability. Lawmakers gave individuals more time to ask the Attorney General to review possible violations of the Open Meetings Act, and authorized the Secretary of State to accept online submissions of ethics statements from state officials, so it’ll be easer flag potential conflicts.
- Efficiency. The legislature continued its baby steps toward reducing Illinois’ unnecessary units of government by facilitating the elimination of a suburban Cook County sanitary district, a DuPage County fair and exposition authority, and a Downstate township that shares boundaries with a municipality. They also imposed a four-year moratorium on the creation of any new units.
- Civic Engagement. Lawmakers approved a bill requiring one semester of civics education in high school. Bravo!
- Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement. The legislature ended the automatic transfer of some juvenile offenders to adult court, which gives judges and prosecutors more discretion; and approved a sweeping police accountability bill that prohibits chokeholds, requires more training, expands crime reporting and data on stop-and-frisk searches, facilitates tracking officers with histories of disciplinary problems, and requires two independent investigations when cops shoot and kill civilians.
The BGA backed some additional good government initiatives that didn’t make it across the finish line, so we’ll keep pushing them.
Meantime, a shout out to lawmakers who helped us block bad bills and enact good ones while their leaders were facing off on the high-visibility issues.
That’s progress—slow but steady—and we look forward to the governor’s signature on the reform measures.
The challenge now for Rauner and the Democrats is to find common ground on the polarizing budget and “turnaround” issues still on the table before there’s an impasse that shuts down state government and severly impacts the rest of Illinois.
Resolving that conundrum would be even more progress.