Gov. Pat Quinn signed a couple of bills last week to make it easier for voters to get rid of unnecessary and wasteful units of government.|
This is nice because Illinois is the king of boutique governments, tiny tax-soaking entities that often handle a single job, such as street lighting or storm drainage. Illinois has 6,968 units of government in all, 42 percent more than the distant runner-up, Pennsylvania.
But the bills Quinn signed are fly swatters at a garbage dump. They won't help much.
While the Legislature and Quinn deserve credit for passing and signing the bills, the whole business mostly serves to remind us of what a mess we've made of grass-roots democracy in this state. Voters can't possibly have a clue about all these obscure little governments.
The League of Women Voters got nowhere trying to eliminate redundant township governments in the 1970s, and collar-county referendums failed to do the same thing in the 1990s. Efforts in Springfield in more recent years to give the state power to ax local governments and consolidate school districts met the same fate.
It took years and a special law, pushed by state Sen. Daniel Biss, to merge Evanston Township into the City of Evanston on May 1, though those units of government shared the same boundaries and the estimated annual savings was $250,000.
Merging units of government requires strong local support because it is complicated. Decisions have to be made about what the new tax rates and levels of service will be and what will happen to contracts signed by the governmental entity that will be no more.
One of the two new laws Quinn signed, HB 5785, allows some minor units of local government to merge with similar districts or vote themselves out of existence and have their duties absorbed by a municipality or county. The second new law, HB 5856, allows voters in adjoining fire protection districts to merge into one.
Biss, who co-sponsored HB 5785 in the Senate, is the first to admit that these are limited reforms. But there is no silver bullet, he says, and so we must create a quiver of arrows — "lots and lots and lots" of solutions.
Biss, who immerses himself in public policy issues in a deep way that always reminds us he was once a University of Chicago math professor, offers the following arrows, among others. They are all well worth consideration:
-- Strengthen the bill just signed, HB 5785, to apply to all forms of government, not just some.
-- Strengthen and duplicate a 2013 state law that gave DuPage County President Dan Cronin significant authority to begin the consolidation of certain smaller governments in the county that are controlled by appointees of the county board. The law could be expanded to include more units of government in DuPage, as well as units of governments in other counties and even those that straddle county lines.
-- Allow any and all of the state's 1,433 townships to dissolve by referendum, as Evanston Township did. Evanston had to get special permission to do so, as current state law requires that all the townships in a county be dissolved simultaneously. But if that's too much reform for our reform-allergic state, how about we allow any township that has the exact same geographic footprint as a city -- such as the township and city of Evanston -- to dissolve by referendum? There are about 20 of those.
-- If that's still too much enlightened progress, the state could allow voters to dissolve just a part of their township government, such as the assessor's office, treasurer or highway commissioner.
-- The state could increase existing financial incentives for school districts to consolidate, less to save money -- though it would -- than to improve the quality of education.
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