By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Much of government exists simply to support itself.
We all know it. It’s a time-honored structure that we occasionally complain about, but essentially leave unchecked. At the local level, you could call it the brother-in-law syndrome: Politicians in seats of power put a family member on the payroll simply to give him a job. Appointees sometimes live up to the job’s responsibilities — and sometimes not.
Whether the process truly falls under the category of “government service” is a matter of opinion. Whether it costs us too much money is unquestionable.
In Illinois, the winds of change are starting to filter through this preserve of patronage. By this time next year, I’ll wager we’ll have fewer local units of government than the 6,963 we’ve got now — the most of any state in America.
Gov. Bruce Rauner hasn’t gotten much of the reform he espoused when he came to the job in January 2015, but he has made headway on the subjects of unfunded mandates and consolidating government. His appointed bipartisan task force led by the lieutenant governor came up with a list of 27 recommendations, some of which are now subject of at least four pending pieces of legislation:
– Citizens Empowerment Act: Empowers Illinois residents and local governments to consolidate duplicate, excessive or unnecessary units of government via referendum.
– DuPage County Consolidation Powers Expansion: Provides that a government reduction and efficiency program now being tested as a pilot in DuPage County be extended to all Illinois counties.
– Evanston Township Consolidation Expansion: Extends to all coterminous townships and municipalities the same authority to consolidate that is currently only provided to Evanston.
– Township consolidation: Removes arbitrary barriers to township consolidation that exist in statute so local residents or units of government can consolidate if they so choose.
Township government, of course, is one of the biggest sources of debate. Opponents contend that municipalities can pick up all of the services provided by township government and not miss a beat. However, supporters will tell you that programs such as general assistance, highway maintenance and assessing are better done by a township government, and — especially in rural areas — there is no other government available.
Meanwhile, pragmatists will tell you it’s impossible to break up a government when the very people who benefit from it are the ones who would be called to vote it out.
I don’t agree on that last point. Belleville Township will be dissolved in May 2017 after a series of actions by both the township and the city of Belleville in the past year. The measure was never put to a vote of the people, and it didn’t have to be. However, it’s now incumbent upon the city to show that it can do the work more efficiently.
There are numerous examples of taxing districts whose responsibilities could easily be transferred to a larger nearby city. But there are also many examples of vast rural stretches with few forms of government to address concerns.
That’s why I believe, like Rauner, that most of these issues should be decided by the people affected. Let them vote on reining in government. If the majority want to continue to pay for services, however questionable, it should be up to them.
The important thing is the public interplay. This is the first serious attempting at reforming Illinois’ system of bureaucracy in memory, and we cannot let these proposals sit inactive.
One of the recommendations is to enact a four-year freeze on creating new local governments. That sounds appealing but I think a better approach would be to seek state legislative approval for the formation of any taxing district. That would slow down the creative process and give people time to reflect.
Another recommendation would allow consolidation of two or more townships into one, by removing the limitation capping township size at 126 square miles. Multi-township government has been shown to work in such areas as emergency medical services and property assessing. I like the sound of it.
I also like a recommendation to give the Illinois State Board of Education flexibility to incentivize school district consolidation. There are many examples throughout Illinois where neighboring school systems could be consolidated and made stronger. People in the Wood River area recognize this — they have tried three times to combine two elementary systems and one high school district into a unit district. Each time the measure failed.
Even in the face of what seems so logical, this particular example shows just how torn people are about how much government they want to represent them.
Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 977-6865.
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH