Legislative Halftime: Good Start; More To Do

BGA beats back a bad FOIA bill; other reform efforts slowly advance.

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Alden Loury is the BGA’s Senior Policy Analyst. Contact him at aloury@bettergov.org. Follow him on Twitter @AldenBGA.

The apparent defeat of a bill that would have greatly damaged the public’s right to know highlights the Better Government Association’s policy activity this legislative session, which is scheduled to end May 31 but may run into summer.

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Indeed, the General Assembly’s spring session is about to shift into high gear as lawmakers and freshman Governor Bruce Rauner tussle over ways to salvage the state’s perilous fiscal condition (a $6 billion deficit and over $100 billion in unfunded public pension liabilities); the proposed 2016 state budget with its deep, some argue draconian, service cuts; and the hunt for new revenue sources, which is expected to renew efforts to expand gaming throughout Illinois.

While the state’s most pressing issues lie ahead, the Illinois General Assembly has made some progress on the good government front. It’s tabling a bill that would weaken the state’s open records law and dropping two bills that would re-introduce the long-abused legislative scholarship program—measures opposed by the BGA’s policy team.

Lawmakers have also inched ahead with legislation backed by the BGA that seeks to expand transparency, eliminate unnecessary government units and increase community feedback and civic engagement.

Bad FOIA bill

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Matthew Topic, outside general counsel for the Better Government Association, delivers testimony opposing an anti-transparency bill during a March 25th meeting of the Business & Occupational Licenses Committee of the Illinois House of Representatives.

Defeating HB 3621 was the BGA’s top legislative priority in the early months of this session.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Rita (D-Blue Island), sought to exempt from disclosure the incentives offered to and rent paid by entities using public facilities for concerts, athletic contests, conventions, trade shows and other events.

Rita said the bill was needed to level the playing field for public venues that compete with privately owned arenas that don’t have to share such information.

But the BGA opposed the bill because it violated the public’s constitutional right to know where tax dollars are going and because it would prevent the public from determining if these public facilities were being mismanaged or otherwise used for the personal benefit of public officials or their friends.

Besides, the BGA argued, public facilities have held their own over the years without such secrecy.

In March, an Illinois House of Representatives’ committee chaired by Rita recommended passage, which sparked widespread opposition from the reform community, including newspaper editorials denouncing the legislation and a BGA action campaign that produced hundreds of emails to nearly 100 representatives urging their opposition.

The bill was never called for a vote before the Illinois House reached its deadline to pass legislation out of that chamber. The bill has been re-referred to the House Rules Committee, and the BGA will work to make sure the bill doesn’t resurface and pass in some other form.

The BGA also opposed a pair of bills that sought to resurrect the troubled legislative scholarship program. While both bills included some reforms, neither one was heard in committee.

After years of reports, by the BGA and other news outlets, about some scholarships being misused for political, not educational purposes, the BGA policy team petitioned legislators to dismantle the scholarship program. In 2012, the legislature complied, and the BGA policy team was present when former Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation ending the program.

STREAMLINING

The BGA did lend its support to a number of good government proposals that have cleared at least one chamber of the General Assembly.

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Rep. Jack Franks
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Among them is HB 229, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) that would extend local government consolidation authority to both Lake and McHenry counties. Currently, only DuPage County has this unique authority, which allows county boards to seek the consolidation or dissolution of government bodies to which they appoint a majority of board members.
The BGA also supported bills that allow for the dissolution of a pair of obscure government units in Cook and DuPage counties that are no longer needed, according to some local officials.

 

OPEN GOVERNMENT

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Rep. David McSweeney
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Rep. Dwight Kay

In addition, the BGA supported HB 175 and HB 248. These bills, sponsored by Reps. David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills) and Dwight Kay (R-Glen Carbon), respectively, strengthen the Illinois Open Meetings Act by extending the time period by which citizens can allege violations of the Act and potentially overturn decisions that result from such violations.

Another pro-transparency bill, SB 1591 sponsored by Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago), would require charter school operators seeking approval to open a new charter to disclose any ongoing investigations of their operations or board members.

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Sen. Jacqueline Collins

To improve civic engagement, the BGA supported Sen. Dan Biss’ (D-Evanston) legislation to expand the period for online voter registration; Rep. Deb Conroy’s (D-Elmhurst) bill to require civics education in public high schools; and Sen. Tom Cullerton’s (D-Villa Park) legislation to hold school board elections during even-numbered years when voter turnout is typically higher.

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Sen. Dan Biss Rep. Deb Conroy Sen. Tom Cullerton

While lawmakers made strides toward good government, they remained stuck in the mud on other measures that could improve ethics, fight corruption and save taxpayer dollars.

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Rep. Scott Drury

The legislature did not move on Rep. Scott Drury’s (D-Highwood) bill to impose a two-year ban on departing lawmakers and legislative staff members from lobbying their former colleagues. Lawmakers also bypassed another Drury proposal to grant the Office of the Illinois Attorney General the power to empanel a statewide grand jury, a move that would help the AG fight public corruption.

And despite three separate proposals to merge the offices of the state treasurer and comptroller, the legislature took no action.

While the legislative session is slated to conclude at the end of May, some believe wrangling over the budget could force lawmakers into overtime and push the session well into June.

No matter how long the session lasts, the BGA will continue its advocacy for these good government measures.

Check the "Action & Policy" section of the BGA website for further updates and to get involved in our efforts for reform.