BGA Halftime Report: Progress Continues Amid Dysfunction
This week marks the return for legislators after a two-week spring break. The break typically marks an opportunity to rest and meet with constituents before the legislature shifts into high gear for the final weeks of the session. Against a backdrop of ongoing dysfunction and an increasingly massive budget deficit—which continues to appear insoluble, legislators will continue to work on a wide range of lesser bills impacting different policy areas. The BGA has also been hard at work to support proposed legislation that makes for a more open, accountable and efficient government.
Here’s a halftime report on BGA's policy agenda:
As the Senate got underway on developing a grand bargain, SB3 emerged. SB3 is a big bill that seeks to consolidate, pun intended, a number of "smart streamlining" efforts into one comprehensive package. We at the BGA define "smart streamlining" as the consolidation or dissolution of inefficient, duplicative or otherwise unnecessary units of government. The BGA and our allies have been strong advocates for "smart streamlining" efforts. Some of the things that SB3 would accomplish include:
- Expanding the Local Government Reduction and Efficiency Division of the Counties Code to all counties. This would enable counties to dissolve local units of government within their boundaries. Currently, this only applies to DuPage, Lake, and McHenry Counties.
- Allowing the dissolution of all townships within a coterminous, or substantially coterminous, municipality. This is currently only allowed for a limited number of townships.
- Removing a restriction limiting townships to 126 square miles and allowing the consolidation of 2 or more townships which share a boundary or merging one township into 2 other townships.
- Allowing township road districts to be abolished by public referendum.
SB3 faced little opposition, and had bipartisan support as it cleared the Senate. It was significant that, as lawmakers identified their highest priorities for a "Grand Bargain"—including a state budget, addressing pensions, procurement, workers comp and the like—they included a bill to seriously move forward government consolidation. However, as a part of the "Grand Bargain" package, SB3 cannot be become law unless the eleven other bills in the package (SB 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 16) also become law, a possibility that seems increasingly, depressingly remote.
Streamlining legislation is also being pursued outside the confines of the grand bargain. HB496, carried by Rep. Demmer has passed the House. HB496 would allow any township within a coterminous, or substantially coterminous, municipality to be discontinued. HB496 also has bipartisan support and passed out of the House floor with almost no opposition (2 no votes).
Ethics disclosure is near and dear to BGA’s heart. Each year, thousands of Illinois public officials must file statements of economic interest (SEIs) intended to identify and expose conflicts of interest between their government roles and their personal finances and business activities. Much of the disclosure law that governs this process has not changed in forty years, the SEI forms are hard to fill out, and limited in what they cover. Several years ago reform advocates pushed for a comprehensive revamp, which passed the Senate and died in the House. That legislation is being resurrected as SB1289 by Sen. Dan McConchie and Sen. Don Harmon.
The reform bill would align the state SEI filing with a person's IRS tax filing, would include information on debt and more sources of income and it broadens coverage of family member finances that may present conflicts. BGA is working, along with advocates of the earlier effort, to ensure the bill represents meaningful reform and is carried through to adoption. It has passed Senate committee unanimously.
As in past sessions, bills to weaken or limit the reach of the state Freedom of Information Act, or in other ways reduce transparency are all too common. Transparency-weakening provisions can be found in bills that are primarily about other subjects and sometimes a limit on FOIA appears to have been added as a convenience, almost as an afterthought. Sometimes sponsors decide not to pursue passage of a bill, or they drop the FOIA provision if it has negative impacts on transparency they were not aware of.
BGA identified 12 "bad" FOIA bills, 6 of which are still alive (and we are working or offering to work with the sponsors of the 6 bills). We identified 21 bills that affected transparency without amending FOIA statute, 5 of them negatively and 16 positively. The good news is that 15 bills that are good for FOIA and transparency are still alive and kicking. The ones we are supporting include:
SB779, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Biss, would provide transparency of pension investments, requiring disclosure of investment agreements that pension funds enter into with hedge funds and private equity funds—revealing fees, terms, and pension fund obligations.
HB3006 sponsored by Rep. Al Riley, requires units of government and school districts to post or link to many public records online—ordinances, tax levies, budgets, property tax information and the like—something BGA supports. Earlier, similar posting bills brought by other lawmakers had included provisions to exempt vast amounts of public information from FOIA; BGA and our allies opposed those exemptions. HB3006 represents a compromise with no FOIA-weakening provisions that we would oppose.
HB3515 (Breen) removes FOIA exemptions that shield from public view information important in assessing the state’s oversight of group homes and services for persons with disabilities; the bill eliminates FOIA exemptions that prevent disclosure of records related to the Abuse Prevention Review Team Act, Brian's Law and the Adult Protective Services Act.
At the same time, BGA works with sponsors to identify ways to ensure transparency while also supporting bill sponsors' aims. We worked with Rep Mike Fortner, suggesting language to balance the interests of transparency with his HB623's provisions to limit release of comptroller salary information that could be useful for identity theft purposes.
Unfortunately, one bad bill is still alive. SB1862 (Rooney), would allow municipalities to exempt themselves from government mandates if they determine that compliance creates an undue burden on the municipality. This potentially, fundamentally threatens policies that promote transparency and accountability.
Two bills this session sought to revive previously discredited legislative scholarships.
BGA investigations into the former program uncovered significant and frequent rule violations, such as legislators granting tuition waivers to students who did not live in their districts. Investigations also uncovered waivers granted to students from politically connected families; this included students whose parents donated money to legislators, and students who were family members of political workers. BGA opposed HB279 and HB2864 which, although revised in some respects, still did not remove legislators’ involvement. Those bills appear to have died in committee.
In Illinois, there are over one million eligible voters who are not on the voter rolls and Illinois is below the national average when it comes to voter registration numbers. The situation is worse when you focus on communities of color. SB1933, Automatic Voter Registration (AVR) would use reliable information already in state databases to register eligible citizens to vote or update their voter registration status. When an eligible voter interacts with a state agency like Driver Services, they would be automatically registered to vote unless they take action to opt out. AVR would make our voter rolls more accurate and secure while saving taxpayer money.
The Spring legislative session is set to adjourn May 31. Until then, the BGA will be working to support bills that advance good government and oppose bills that stand in the way of the kind of government we're entitled to.
Much of the attention from legislators will be placed on the budget, over the remainder of the time left in session. The BGA will continue to work with legislators to not only reform some of the dysfunction in Springfield but to protect and strengthen open government in Illinois while advocating for effective policy.