A ‘Smart Streamlining’ plan passes, a bad FOIA bill dies.
By Alden Loury
The Illinois General Assembly recently closed the doors on another drama-filled spring legislative session. This one was dominated by debate over a shaky state budget deeply dependent on an income tax increase due to terminate at year’s end. Adding to the commotion was the political intrigue of primary elections, a highly contested 2014 gubernatorial race and heavily reported scandals about alleged political hiring and mismanagement of anti-violence grants.
Often flying under the radar, yet just as vital to a watchdog group like the Better Government Association, were bills dealing with improving government transparency, efficiency and accountability. At the end of session, the BGA helped achieve a couple of important legislative wins while laying the groundwork for future reforms.
As such, lawmakers passed measures designed to trim unnecessary units of government, prevent wrongful convictions and uncover conflicts of interest with state grant recipients and charter schools. However, they balked at other good government legislation and approved a bill that could have raised significant obstacles for citizens to access public records that was vetoed by Gov. Quinn.
Trimming or consolidating nearly 150 small, obscure units of government will be possible should Gov. Quinn sign a government streamlining bill into law.
Introduced by Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock) in the house, sponsored by Sen. Dan Biss (D-Evanston) in the senate, and backed by the BGA’s policy team, HB 5785 passed both chambers of the General Assembly.
READ MORE: Smart Streamlining
Starting in 2014, the Better Government Association is making a renewed push to expose instances of bloated and inefficient government in Illinois, and write about cases where streamlining and consolidation might make sense.
The legislation creates a streamlining path via annexation, consolidation or dissolution for more than a dozen types of government units—including cemetery maintenance, museum, street lighting, and water service districts. Prior to this legislation, state statutes did not offer any ways for these units of government to annex, consolidate or dissolve themselves.
The BGA remains committed to such “smart streamlining” legislation—measures that create opportunities to trim away at Illinois 7,000 units of government that are found to be unnecessary or duplicative. Other streamlining bills that passed the General Assembly this past session could help Illinois trim some of its more than 800 fire protection districts. They include Rep. Donald Moffitt’s (R-Gilson) bill making it easier for adjoining fire protection districts to merge and Sen. Terry Link’s (D-Waukegan) legislation making it possible to merge municipal fire departments and fire protection districts.
WRONGFUL CONVICTION REFORMS
In addition, the BGA continues to advocate for legislation to help prevent wrongful convictions, miscarriages of justice that have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and levied an incalculable toll on the wrongfully convicted.
Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) and Rep. Scott Drury (D-Highwood) successfully pushed through a bill that calls for videotaping police lineups and using lineup administrators with no prior knowledge of the case or the suspect.
The BGA hails this reform, which follows a landmark bill passed last year—and pushed by the BGA policy team—requiring the videotaping of interrogations for eight additional felonies (to join homicide interrogations).
These are reforms the BGA has recommended in the past and that will likely help prevent wrongful convictions in the future. Both reforms were spurred, in part, by a 2011 investigation between the BGA and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, which revealed that more than 80 innocent people spent more than 900 years in prison for violent crimes they didn’t commit, costing taxpayers more than $200 million. Last year, an update to that investigation showed that taxpayers have paid an additional $40 million for wrongful convictions since 2011.
Preventing the conflicts of interest found with controversial anti-violence grants and charter school contracts from the state will be easier thanks to a pair of transparency bills approved by the General Assembly this past session.
Sen. Dan Kotowski (D-Park Ridge) introduced a measure calling for increased scrutiny and transparency of state and federal pass-through grants like the anti-violence grants of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, some of which were linked to politically connected groups, elected officials and their spouses.
Those connections have led to federal and state probes of the $54.5 million effort.
And Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-Chicago) introduced legislation that seeks to expose and prevent potential conflicts of interest between charter school operators and firms hired to manage their charter schools.
Concerns over such conflicts of interest between the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) and its charter school network ultimately led to the suspension of a $98 million state grant to build charter schools and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of the nonprofit community organization. (This year the BGA took an in-depth look at UNO’s operations.)
READ MORE: The ABCs Of UNO
How the United Neighborhood Organization used clout to grow from a small Latino community group into a multi-million-dollar enterprise subsidized by taxpayers – and how old-school politics might be its undoing.
On top of that, the legislature approved a same-day voter registration pilot program for the Nov. 4th general election that some believe will help boost the paltry voter turnout numbers witnessed during the March primaries.
FOIA BILL SPIKED
In another move to bolster government transparency, Gov. Quinn vetoed a bill that would have raised significant barriers for everyday people to access public information.
In the final days of the session, both legislative chambers swiftly passed a measure creating a “voluminous request” category within the Illinois Freedom of Information Act or FOIA. But Quinn promptly vetoed it on the day it reached his desk in late June.
Proposed as a way to allow sufficient time and cover costs necessary to handle comprehensive FOIA requests, particularly for municipal governments, the bill could have created further delays and fees up to $100 for everyday people seeking electronic records. The bill did not apply to FOIA requests from media, nonprofit, scientific and academic institutions.
However, in a letter to Quinn urging a veto, the BGA noted that the bill was clearly a step in the wrong direction because it would “unfairly and unjustifiably raise significant barriers and create obstacles to everyday people getting access to taxpayer-backed information at the municipal level throughout the state.”
READ THE BGA’S LETTER: Veto Bad FOIA Bill
The Better Government Association asked Gov. Pat Quinn to protect the people’s right to know by vetoing HB 3796, a recently passed bill that unfairly and unjustifiably raises significant barriers to everyday people getting access to taxpayer-backed information at the municipal level.
Furthermore, the proposed fees didn’t appear to bear any relation to the actual costs to retrieve electronic records, and supporters’ claims that the legislation was necessary to thwart “frivolous” and “spiteful” FOIA requests were unsubstantiated.
For similar reasons, the Citizens Advocacy Center, Illinois Public Interest Research Group, the Illinois Policy Institute, the Office of the Illinois Attorney General and other groups also firmly denounced the bill and urged Quinn to veto the measure.
The BGA vows to fight an override of Quinn’s veto should the General Assembly take up the measure again in the fall veto session.
GOOD GOVERNMENT SETBACKS
However, several other good-government bills saw little to no action in the General Assembly.
The legislature all but ignored proposals for binding ballot questions to enact redistricting reform or legislative term limits.
Lawmakers also failed to advance several streamlining bills including one that would empower county boards across the state to consolidate government units they control, one to allow River Forest Township voters to consider consolidating the township into the Village of River Forest and another to allow townships with fewer than 15 miles of road to abolish the township’s highway commissioner position and fold its duties into the township.
A measure that could bolster statements of economic interest—a primary tool to surface conflicts of interest for elected and high-ranking public officials—saw no movement in the house this past session.
That bill, advanced by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, sponsored by Sen. Kotowski and backed by the BGA, has languished in the house’s rules committee ever since the senate overwhelmingly approved it last year.
But Rep. Mike Zalewski, (D-Riverside) the bill’s house sponsor, said it’s not dead. He said there are plans to discuss possible amendments to the legislation to ensure that the statements provide adequate transparency of information truly relevant to the public duties of those required to submit them.
“We want to get it right,” Zalewski said. “The goal is for there to be a balance.”