Cities, towns seek greater power to act; But Municipal League effort may face tough road

By Mark Fitton, Illinois News Network | Feb 25, 2016

SPRINGFIELD — In the midst of Illinois budget crisis, Illinois’ 1,300 cities, towns and villages are seeking greater freedom to act on their own.


SPRINGFIELD — In the midst of Illinois budget crisis, Illinois’ 1,300 cities, towns and villages are seeking greater freedom to act on their own.

But much of the “Moving Cities Forward” legislation being promoted by the Illinois Municipal League likely will face pushback in a General Assembly locked in a struggle over taxes, the lack of an overall state budget and Gov. Bruce Rauner’s calls for changes in the state’s financial and political conduct.

The league on Tuesday rolled out its initiative, including a measure to put local shares of taxes and fees into automatic,continuing appropriations and remove them from the annual budget fight.

Another thrust of the league’s effort calls for expansion of “home rule” authority. That proposal would grant municipalities of 5,000 or more the additional powers of home rule -- including some taxing powers -- that are now reserved to cities or towns of 25,000 or more.

Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, is sponsoring a home rule proposal -- HJRCA 38 -- that’s included in the league's effort. He said he knows there may be resistance from some lawmakers wary of or even flat-out opposed to granting any additional taxing authority.

But cities and towns are struggling, he said, and home rule is one way to put spending decisions closest to home.

“The cities and villages in my district are feeling the crunch of the budget impasse, and this is a piece of legislation we felt we could try to move forward and alleviate some of the issues they’re having,” Smiddy said.

At minimum, expanding home rule should be discussed and debated in the General Assembly, he argued.

“You have to be realistic, I believe, and say we’re in this to help people and not to do more damage,” Smiddy said. “If this gives local governments a chance to blaze their own way, so to speak, and solve some of their own problems, then we need to take a look at it.”

Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, is sponsoring two bills in the Municipal League’s package.

The former McHenry mayor’s legislation includes one bill, SB 3105, that would require arbitrators to consider a city’s financial condition when deciding wage and benefit rulings on contracts for police officers and firefighters.

Those decisions often end up before arbitrators because state law forbids a work stoppage in the public safety fields, whether it be initiated by either management or labor.

“Salaries and benefits are usually the most expensive line item in any budget,” Althoff said, and it only makes sense that arbitrators be required consider what a city can afford to pay when making salary and benefit decisions.

Legislation addressing the costs of arbitration, pension and workers compensation nearly always face opposition, Althoff said, but the General Assembly has to look at what the state can do to help local government address costs.

“The idea is to truly to start a dialog,” she said. “It’s a significant issue. If we can’t get all that we want, what can we get? What makes sense? Where can we go? It’s an issue that every municipality I’m aware of is struggling with.”

The question inherent in most of the Municipal League bills is how to help local governments address rising costs without pushing additional taxes onto taxpayers, “and I don’t think that’s necessarily a party issue, I think that’s more of an issue of serving our shared constituency,” Althoff said.

With Republican Gov. Rauner and legislative Democrats locked in battles over budgeting and Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda,” analyst Jim Nowlan said he’d be surprised if any but the very least controversial of bills are shunted to the side this spring.

"I think that anything that smacks of being controversial will be put on hold," said Nowlan, a former Republican member of the House and retired senior fellow of the University of Illinois Institute for Government and Public Affairs.

Nowlan also noted several of the proposals in the league’s initiative seem to line up with the governor’s agenda, and that’s not likely to play well in the Democratically controlled Legislature, particularly the House.

"I don't think Speaker (Michael) Madigan is going to want to be giving anything out that might look like a victory for Rauner,” Nowlan said.

“It’s going to be a heavy lift, but that doesn’t change what their positions are -- that it's time to have the debate and let's get started,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Whether or not the bills can pass this session, “I think it's a little bit of delivering another wake-up call to Illinoisans that local governments are going to have to start making some changes, too,” Yepsen said.

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