Lock your doors, hug your children and hold onto your wallets. The General Assembly is returning to Springfield in just over a week.
Actually, it’s not that bad. Lawmakers passed a political gut check with flying colors in November by approving an ambitious pension reform plan that’s now in the hands of the courts, so let’s hope they’re committed to the rest of the heavy lifting required to restore the state’s fiscal health.
A good place to start is the obesity epidemic — not by dusting off the old treadmill, renewing a gym membership or trying the latest fad diet in an effort to slim down. This is about a state that’s morbidly obese when it comes to government: Illinois has nearly 7,000 separate taxing bodies, the most in the country by a mile and, in fact, nearly 2,000 more than runner-ups Texas and California, which have much larger populations, and Pennsylvania, which is about the same size as Illinois.
Cook County, where I live, has 530 governmental units, more than any other U.S. county. Sangamon has 118.
Those fiefdoms spend billions of our tax dollars every year to operate and deliver services that often overlap and duplicate one another.
It’s time for “smart streamlining.” Let’s consolidate some government offices and eliminate others.
Does Illinois really need 1,400 townships — those relics from the horse-and-buggy era — when most of their statutory obligations are being handled by nearby counties or municipalities?
There may be reasons to maintain a few townships in rural areas, but in high-density Cook County, with more than 120 towns and villages and a $3.5 billion county budget, the 30 townships are essentially poster children for wasteful excess.
Seventeen Illinois counties, including Menard and Morgan, get along without any townships. Why does Sangamon need 26?
And of the 900 school districts in Illinois, 600, or two-thirds, are downstate, and a fourth of those have just one school. Alabama, which is about the same size as downstate Illinois and has about the same school enrollment, operates with 130 districts, almost 80 percent fewer.
It’s time to start consolidating administrative functions in the smallest districts, which would save money without affecting students, teachers or classroom quality. It may be more challenging to deliver fire protection and maintain parks and libraries over broad geographic areas, but does Illinois really need 800-plus fire protection districts or 300-plus park and 300-plus library districts?
How do you spell c-o-n-s-o-l-i-d-a-t-i-o-n?
Several years ago, Indiana studied local government efficiency and issued numerous recommendations, including eliminating townships and consolidating assessors, auditors, coroners, recorders, sheriffs, surveyors and treasurers into single county executive positions. Within a year, several local governments implemented full or partial consolidations.
The Sangamon County Citizens’ Efficiency Commission, led by former Springfield Mayor Karen Hasara, spent three years studying “smart streamlining” in Sangamon County, and she will discuss the commission’s final report at the Citizen Club’s next policy breakfast Friday morning. The report provides a valuable framework for other state and county officials to use in addressing a bureaucratic bloat that stretches from Cary to Cairo.
This is one of the Better Government Association’s top 2014 priorities, and Gov. Pat Quinn can signal his support when he delivers his State of the State address to the General Assembly on Jan. 29.
Let’s make “smart streamlining” the clarion call of 2014. We’d all unlock our doors and bundle up our kids for that parade.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.
A version of this article appeared in The State Journal-Register.