Legislative Wrap-up: Protecting FOIA, Advancing Accountability

Much of the attention on our elected officials in Springfield has focused on what they’ve failed to do: pass a balanced state budget and help save Illinois from financial ruination.

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Much of the attention on our elected officials in Springfield has focused on what they’ve failed to do: pass a balanced state budget and help save Illinois from financial ruination.

The Democrats, who control the General Assembly, and the Republicans, who control the governor’s office, will continue to spar over critical financial issues now that the legislative session has gone into overtime.

All of Illinois awaits the outcome.

Despite the impasse, Illinois’ lawmakers did address a number of issues on the Better Government Association’s legislative agenda this session.

Here’s a look at the measures the BGA fought against or in favor of passing. Each bill that was passed requires Gov. Rauner’s signature to become law.

As always, the thrust of the BGA’s agenda is promoting and protecting laws that ensure greater government transparency, accountability and efficiency. That calls for laws that compel public officials to spend our tax dollars wisely and to keep the process above board for all to see.

Fighting for FOIA

One of the best ways to promote transparency is to preserve the state’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, the public’s most vital tool to keep an eye on government.

As such, the BGA’s top legislative priority this session was to stop HB 3621, a bill that would have changed FOIA, allowing government bodies to keep key financial details secret from the people.

The bill sought to allow government officials the authority to no longer disclose basic public information about public venues, like the rent they charge and the financial incentives they offer to groups renting such facilities for concerts, athletic events, conventions and other events.

Without this information, the public could not effectively follow the money to determine if these public facilities were being managed effectively or if sweetheart deals were being offered to benefit public officials or their cronies.

In response to a BGA call to action, hundreds of individuals sent emails to state lawmakers urging their opposition, which effectively halted the bill’s progress through the legislature.

Supporting Transparency

The BGA also backed a pair of pro-transparency measures that passed both legislative chambers, including SB 1591, sponsored by Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago) and Rep. Robert Martwick (D-Chicago), a bill requiring organizations seeking permission to open charter schools to divulge any ongoing investigations of their operations or board members.

Also passing the legislature with BGA support was SB 248, a bill requiring more timely reporting of expenditures by groups’ spending money to support or oppose political campaigns.

In some cases, due to a loophole in the state’s campaign finance laws, those expenditures could remain hidden from the public until well after an election. The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) advanced the measure to close that loophole.

At a press conference earlier this month, the BGA and other reform groups stood with ICPR and the bill’s sponsors—Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) and Sen. Julie Morrison (D-Deerfield)—to urge Gov. Rauner to sign the bill.

In terms of accountability, lawmakers passed HB 175, sponsored by Rep. David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills) and Sen. Dan Duffy (R-Lake Barrington), which will extend the time by which individuals can request that the Illinois Attorney General review possible violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

The legislature also passed SB 1448, sponsored by Sen. Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge) and Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch (D-Hillside), which will allow the Illinois Secretary of State to accept online submissions of forms designed to highlight potential conflicts of interest for state officials.

Encouraging Efficiency

The legislature took some incremental steps toward trimming the state’s 7,000 units of government by passing legislation paving the way to dissolve three of them.

HB 3273, sponsored by Rep. David Harris (R-Arlington Heights) and Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine), calls for the dissolution of a suburban Cook County sanitary district. HB 3747, sponsored by Rep. Peter Breen (R-Lombard) and Sen. Michael Connelly (R-Wheaton), would dissolve a DuPage County fair and exposition authority. And HB 3693, sponsored by Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) and Sen. James Clayborne (D-Belleville), could lead to the dissolution of downstate Belleville Township and transfer its duties to the City of Belleville, which has the same boundaries as the township.

In addition, the legislature passed HB 228, sponsored by Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) and Sen. Connelly, imposing a four-year moratorium on the creation of any new units of government.

Civics, Police Accountability

Other notable bills supported by the BGA that passed both chambers include HB 4025, sponsored by Rep. Deb Conroy (D-Elmhurst) and Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park), a measure requiring that civics education be the focus in one semester of high school social studies instruction, and HB 3718, sponsored by Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) and Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago), ending the automatic transfer of some juvenile offenders to adult court, allowing judges and prosecutors discretion to determine when such transfers are appropriate.

Lawmakers also approved SB 1304, a sweeping police accountability bill with language introduced by Rep. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago) and also sponsored by Sen. Raoul.

The bill provides standards for the use of police body-worn cameras, which some believe helps reduce incidents of excessive force by police and unfounded complaints from citizens.

The bill also prohibits police chokeholds, requires more police training, expands crime reporting and data about stop-and-frisk searches, enhances the ability to track officers with a history of disciplinary problems, and requires two independent investigations when officers shoot and kill civilians.

Saving Police Records

Unfortunately, that bill did not include language offered by the BGA to prevent police misconduct records from being destroyed after just four years, as is provided in the Chicago Police union’s labor agreement.

The BGA seeks to protect those records in an effort to prevent wrongful convictions. In 2011, the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions released an exhaustive report on wrongful convictions and determined that police misconduct was the most important factor in such miscarriages of justice.

Hopefully, lawmakers will revisit that language and other reform proposals backed by the BGA that have, as yet, failed to pass both chambers. They include a bill granting McHenry and Lake counties the authority to consolidate some smaller government agencies and a bill that, as introduced, requires campus police with full police powers at private universities to share the same type of information shared by other law enforcement agencies.

Common Ground?

We also hope that the tough talk and toxic environment in Springfield right now will subside enough so our elected officials can find common ground on the state’s most pressing fiscal needs.

They’ve made deals before when the stakes were high, but lawmakers must reach a budget agreement soon to avoid catastrophic results like a state government shutdown or the delayed opening of schools throughout Illinois.

Alden Loury is the BGA’s Senior Policy Analyst. Contact him at aloury@bettergov.org. Follow him on Twitter @AldenBGA. BGA Policy Coordinator Judy Stevens contributed to this blog.