A funny thing happened on the way to meltdown, gridlock and dysfunction in Springfield last week as our elected leaders were failing to approve a budget of any size or duration to fund K-12 schools, colleges and universities, social and human services, and prisons.
Those same lawmakers actually approved 23 streamlining, transparency, accountability, ethics and criminal justice bills backed by the Better Government Association and other reform groups.
A phoenix did indeed rise from the ashes.
So a shout-out to legislators on both sides of the aisle who were able to keep their eyes on the little good government balls even as the big budget ball was bouncing out of bounds.
Now we’re asking the governor to evaluate the bills on their merits, free from the politics of the budget battle, and then sign them.
- Automatic voter registration of people seeking or renewing drivers licenses, or conducting business with four other state agencies, which should go a long way toward enfranchising many of the nearly 2 million unregistered Illinois residents.
- Government streamlining. Four bills supported by the Transform Illinois coalition—BGA is a member— made it across the finish line, which represents incremental progress. Most notable: Residents of Lake and McHenry Counties will be able to consolidate or eliminate wasteful or duplicative offices, and the state will collect more information on streamlining in other counties.
- Accountability. Eight bills increase government oversight of pension eligibility and severance packages. The goal is to eliminate secretive “golden parachutes” and pension payments to dead annuitants, and ensure that members of boards and commissions, and top government officials, actually work enough hours to qualify for pensions.
- Ethics. Community college trustees and university board members will be required to complete four hours of training on the basics of audits, and compliance with the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Acts. That should help them do their jobs in accordance with best practices.
- Transparency. Lawmakers established rights and protections for student journalists, and cleared the way for newly elected public officials to see confidential records of past executive sessions as they get up to speed.
- Criminal justice. The legislature extended the life and jurisdiction of the Illinois Torture and Inquiry Commission, and the filing period for claims, to 10 years.
Every legislative session includes good bills that don’t make it to the finish line. One in particular we’ll keep working on would authorize every county in Illinois to start combining and eliminating some of their local government offices.
Another key measure would prevent the destruction of Chicago police misconduct complaint records after five-to-seven years, as currently mandated in the city’s contract with its police union.
Those records should be preserved to help identify problem officers who need training or discipline before new excessive force incidents roil communities and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in lawsuits and settlements.
Here’s our bottom line: The good government bills that passed, or almost did, represent the victory of sound public policy over misguided political motivation.
They’re small but important victories achieved by hard-working rank-and-file legislators and reform groups committed to shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable.
The fight for better government will continue in Springfield this summer, along with another major challenge: Pressuring our elected leaders to end a budget stalemate that imperils millions of Illinois residents whose lives, livelihoods and futures depend on a host of unfunded programs and services.
Let’s go all in on that one too.