As a part of its "Smart Streamlining" campaign, the Better Government Association hosted an Idea Forum on Tuesday, May 20, before a crowd of more than 50 guests at the Sangamo Club in Springfield.
The event featured a panel discussion moderated by Springfield radio personality Jim Leach of WMAY 970 AM, which provided a live broadcast of the 90-minute event. A podcast of the conversation is available on the station's website. The Idea Forum also featured a presentation on the more than 7,000 units of government in Illinois—the highest of any state in the nation.
Springfield-area state Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill); former Springfield Mayor Karen Hasara; Jim Donelan with the Township Officials of Illinois; and Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, served as panelists. They talked about why Illinois has so many units of government, the hard work being done to trim those numbers and the challenges standing in the way—like politics, emotions and questions about whether consolidation will yield significant savings.
Last year, the Illinois General Assembly approved three measures that ease the path to consolidation for a select number of governments. However, several other measures have stalled. Manar acknowledged that politics is part of the reason that progress has been slow, but he said legislators are warming up to conversations about promoting government efficiency.
"The more that the conversation is forced on the legislature, the better off we're going to be. But that takes continuous dialogue and probably a piecemeal approach," Manar said. "This is a complicated issue."
Donelan noted that consolidation plans shouldn't move forward until there's a firm understanding of the services provided by local governments and how consolidation might affect the people who rely on those services. Hasara said a thoughtful approach allowed officials in Springfield eliminate several local governments there without great pain to government workers and the public at large.
Donelan, Hasara and Redfield all served on the Citizens' Efficiency Commission, an effort to identify ways to save tax dollars in Sangamon County through government consolidation and collaboration, like sharing services and personnel.
Redfield said the taxing and bonding restrictions imposed by the state's 1870 constitution help explain why Illinois has amassed nearly 7,000 units of government. As a result, communities created special districts to provide services that were beyond the fiscal means of counties and municipalities. Redfield said constitutional revisions in 1970 alleviated some of those restrictions.
"The problem is it came a hundred years too late. And now we're in a situation where everybody is invested in the status quo," Redfield said. "We've got land. We've got people, and, frankly, we've got politics in terms of units of local government also become places where parties can run candidates or use them for organizing devices."
The BGA regularly hosts Idea Forums to engage and educate the public on a wide range of good government issues. "Smart Streamlining," which tops the BGA's 2014 legislative agenda, is an effort to advocate for the public's ability to consolidate or dissolve units of government found to be inefficient or ineffectual. The BGA launched the campaign in January.
The panel discussion on "Smart Streamlining" was sponsored by the Better Government Association and broadcast live on 970 WMAY.