SPRINGFIELD — The governor, lieutenant governor and a handful of legislators on Friday rolled out the first bills derived from a year-long effort focused on how to downsize Illinois’ plethora of governments.
The goal, according to those officials: Whittle down Illinois’ nearly 7,000 units of government to get the taxpayers more for their money.
“Our present system of 7,000 governments is simply unsustainable, (and) it’s also a big reason we have the second-highest property taxes in the nation” said Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock, the lone Democratic lawmaker to speak at a Naperville news conference headlined by Gov. Bruce Rauner, R-Winnetka, and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, R-Wheaton.
“Our system is bloated, it’s inefficient, it’s opaque, and it’s unaccountable,” Franks said. “And our system, as a result, is open to corruption and abuse.”
“We need to stop digging a deeper hole,” he said. “It’s time for government to get out of the shadows. By implementing these ideas, I believe we can begin to restore balance, eliminate redundant governments and, most importantly, we can save taxpayers money.”
Gov. Rauner said the four bills rolled out Friday encompass eight of the 27 recommendations made by Sanguinetti’s bipartisan task force.
And, to a degree, the governor acknowledged, they represent some low-hanging fruit, or ideas perhaps the easiest upon which to find agreement.
“What we’d like to do is get some successes and walk before we run,” Rauner said.
The legislation includes efforts to:
-- Let citizens and local governments consolidate duplicative, excessive or unnecessary units of government via referendum.
-- Provide consolidation powers to all counties that now only apply to DuPage County.
-- Extend to all townships and municipalities having the same boundaries the same authority to consolidate that is now provided only to Evanston.
-- Remove arbitrary barriers to township consolidation so local residents or units of government can consolidate if they choose.
Regarding other recommendations of the task force, including some which Democrats see as hostile to collective bargaining and prevailing wage, Rauner said, “We’re not giving up.”
Rauner went further, saying the right-sizing of government is one of the keys to establishing financial stability for the state.
“In Springfield, the debate is raging: ‘Do we cut services or raise taxes?’ That really shouldn’t be the conversation,” the governor said.
“It should be, ‘How do we shrink the bureaucracy (and) shrink the cost of government so we can put more money into our human services, into our school system — which for me is the No. 1 priority — and how do we grow our tax revenue not through tax increases, but through a more growing economy?’ That’s got to be the conversation,” Rauner said.
And the governor says that’s very much a legitimate part of the budget debate.
“Let’s be clear: This is directly about the state budget,” he said. “If we can relieve taxpayer burden at the local level on property taxes for our working families and for our small-business owners, (then) our small- business owners can find it easier to grow and invest. And when they invest and grow, that’s more tax revenue for the state without raising rates. It comes through growth.”
State Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, struck a similar chord.
“You hear a lot of talk about do we cut services or do we raise taxes. We don’t have to do either,” Batinick said.
“Just spending one year in Springfield, what I realize is that there’s a lot of inefficiencies in the way we do things, and that’s what this task force is about. We do have the opportunity to provide the necessary services that we need to to the citizens without having to raise taxes in order to do it,” he said.
The idea that Illinois can right its financial ship solely by finding efficiencies and promoting business growth, especially in the short term, isn’t universally accepted.
“Offhand, I can’t know for certain, but I’m compelled to say that for the state to cover the $4 billion or $6 billion or $9 billion it needs just on improved efficiencies? That’s sort of huge,” said Carol Portman, president of the Illinois Federation of Taxpayers.
“That’s not to say it (increasing efficiency) isn’t worth try and an incredibly important part of what we should be doing, but a solution is probably going to require addressing both the spending and revenue sides of the equation and not just improving efficiencies.”
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, concurred.
“Can we make government cuts and make government do what it is supposed to be doing more effectively? Absolutely,” said Redfield
“And we’re going to have to do some things to improve the state’s business environment — there’s no doubt about it.'
But, he added, firing every state worker tomorrow wouldn’t balance Illinois budget and solve its debt problems, he said.
With Illinois in its eighth month of fiscal year 2016 with no budget, neither Democrats nor Republicans have shown themselves willing to address their own bitter-pill issues, Redfield said, and those are likely reduced spending on social services for Democrats and some form of revenue (tax) increase for Republicans.
“They are not making the hard decisions,” Redfield said. “We need a serious conversation about what government can do and how we’re going to pay for it, and, as I near as I can tell, we’re not having that conversation yet.”
Without an overall budget for fiscal 2016, the state is still making payments on roughly 90 percent of the bills it covered in the previous year by paying for costs mandated in continuing appropriations, by court decrees, in the primary education budget that did pass and in debt service.
Earlier this week, Illinois also was sitting on about $7 billion in unpaid bills, Comptroller Leslie Munger, R-Lincolnshire, said in a news conference.
Without action by the Legislature and governor, the unpaid bills likely will grow to $10 billion to $12 billion by June 30, the end of fiscal year 2016, Munger predicted.