BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw talks about state legislators’ progress in his bi-weekly column for Crain’s Chicago Business.
Two very different morality plays are being staged in Springfield legislative theaters this year, and they’re garnering wildly divergent reviews from the critics—Illinois citizens and watchdogs.
The marquee production—with bright lights, big crowds and rotten tomato reviews—is a political and governmental tragedy about epic dysfunction: The failure of elected officials to pass a balanced budget, pay the state’s bills or confront a deepening pension crisis.
Victims include public colleges and universities that are short-changing their students, social and human service agencies that can’t adequately serve their clients, and an aging infrastructure that’s crumbling around us.
There’s also collateral damage to the state’s business climate and reputation, and the psyches of increasingly agitated Illinois residents.
Many of us are serving as a Greek chorus, telling the actors in the leading roles: “Enough is enough—put politics and egos aside and tackle our humongous fiscal crisis instead of waiting for the results of the 2018 election.”
But they’re not listening, and the dystopian show goes on.
The second story, playing to kinder reviews in front of smaller crowds in the shadow of the main stage, is a feel-good tale about rank-and-file lawmakers, and several of their leaders, ignoring the craven budget fight and quietly moving the good government ball forward.
Last year’s legislative session produced 22 new laws designed to make local government a little more transparent, accountable, efficient and ethical, and here’s where the reform agenda stands with a month left in this year’s run:
The bipartisan “grand bargain” crafted by Senate leaders John Cullerton and Christine Radogno includes a “smart streamlining” bill that would enable counties to dissolve wasteful units of government and eliminate or consolidate unnecessary townships.
If the all-or-nothing “grand bargain” fails, stand alone bills to accomplish the same efficiencies are ready to go, and that’s encouraging.
On the ethics front, another bipartisan duo—Senators Don Harmon and Dan McConchie—are co-sponsoring a bill aimed at making legislators more accountable, and reducing conflicts of interest, by requiring them to disclose more personal and business-related information on their Statements of Economic Interest.
It passed a Senate committee unanimously, and that’s encouraging.
Transparency continues to be a contentious issue, with House and Senate members floating more than two-dozen new ways to either strengthen or weaken disclosure and public records laws.
The scorecard after Act I: Fifteen of the 16 “good” transparency bills are still alive, including measures that would shine brighter lights on pension investments and school district finances.
Six of the 12 “bad” transparency bills appear to be dead, and reform groups are lobbying hard against the other six.
In addition, an ill-conceived “Zombie Apocalypse”—proposals to bring the scandal-scarred legislative scholarship program back from the graveyard of discarded laws—was repelled in committee. Whew!
Finally, good government groups are once again rallying behind a plan to automatically register eligible voters when they apply for drivers licenses or other state documents. Automatic Voter Registration, or AVR, made it through the House and Senate last year but was vetoed by the governor, and this year’s fate is still unclear.
Overall it’s unrealistic to expect the legislature to pass another 22 good government bills this session, but hopefully they’ll adopt most of the sensible measures and bury most of the ill-advised ones.
If that’s how this show ends, lawmakers will have earned a round of applause for getting some important things done.
But unless they can radically rework the depressing budget script in the next few weeks they’ll continue to be booed loudly and unmercifully for their role in the horrific production on the main stage.