BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw talks about state legislators’ progress — good and bad — in his bi-weekly column for Crain’s Chicago Business.
My estimable colleagues here at Crain’s displayed surgical precision last week as they systematically eviscerated perpetrators of the latest epic failure in Springfield to pass a budget that can finally begin state government’s long climb out of a fiscal abyss that’s inflicting pain on Illinois’ residents and damaging our institutions, business climate and image.
Greg Hinz, Joe Cahill, Rich Miller, editorial writers and other commentators took no prisoners in their stinging apportionment of blame and shame by name. I agree with much of their punditry, and I repeat a plea a coalition of civic groups, including the Better Government Association, made to the governor and legislative leaders a week before the May 31 conclusion of the spring session:
DON’T COME HOME UNTIL YOU’VE DONE YOUR JOB! Stay in Springfield until you agree on a balanced, full-year budget and whatever else it takes to seal a deal. Our plea was ignored — lawmakers didn’t hang around after adjournment — but they’ll presumably return to the Capitol later this month to vote on something.
Meanwhile, I’m pleased to report that, despite the budget blues, legislators were once again capable of getting important things done. Last year they passed 23 local government reform bills that accelerated the long march to the open, accessible, honest and efficient government taxpayers are entitled to.
Governor Bruce Rauner signed all but one — he vetoed automatic voter registration — but this year he’s promising to sign a new and improved AVR measure that could legally put thousands more Illinois residents on the voter rolls. That’s a major civic engagement victory that can strengthen our fragile democracy.
We’re also asking the governor to sign 11 other good government bills making their way to his desk — measures that would give the reform fight even more momentum by increasing local government transparency and accountability, and one group of bills in particular with the potential to be game-changers:
Lawmakers finally approved “smart streamlining” proposals that, among other reforms, would enable all 102 Illinois counties to begin “consolidating” — merging or eliminating overlapping and arguably unnecessary units of government, including many of our 1,400 antiquated townships.
Another graphic example of absurd excess is mosquito abatement in Cook County, where four offices with staffs, vehicles, chemicals and equipment could be folded into the county’s health department for a savings of about a million dollars a year.
This is clearly a target-rich environment in a state with more than 7,000 units of government — all of them separate taxing bodies — a whopping 2,000 or 40 percent more than any other state. Now, pending the governor’s signature, voters will be able to consider what is and isn’t necessary and start making downsizing decisions that can save money and improve efficiency. Done right, it’s a giant leap toward good government.
Our legislative agenda also includes unfinished business — several good government proposals didn’t make it to the finish line, including new and improved financial disclosure requirements for state lawmakers that can flag and reduce conflicts of interest.
We’ll be working with the sponsors of those bills over the summer to make the necessary refinements and build the necessary legislative support to get them passed as soon as possible. Many of those lawmakers will also be wrestling with budget issues at the same time.
The spring session may be over but summer vacations are on hold because the fight for a balanced, full-year budget and additional good government reforms can’t afford an armistice. It must and will continue unabated because the future of Illinois depends on it.