The Illinois legislature’s “diet doctor” is asking his fattest patients to swallow a bitter streamlining pill and, as you might expect, the Rx is meeting a lot of resistance.
I’m talking about Rep. Jack Franks’ attempt to downsize a public sector that’s morbidly obese.
Illinois, as I’ve mentioned before, has nearly 7,000 separate units of government, which is 2,000 — or 40 percent — more than any other state.
Many reformers, including Franks and the Better Government Association, argue it’s time to eliminate some units and consolidate others to provide more efficient services at a lower cost to taxpayers.
That’s eminently logical but extraordinarily difficult, as Franks learned during two challenging years as chairman of the Local Government Consolidation Commission, where the concept of a state-mandated diet met strong opposition from local governments that claim their offices perform important services and should be retained in their current form.
The commission recently issued its final report, which Franks summarizes this way:
“After a significant amount of research and debate, our main focus became empowering local citizens to be able to make their own choices.”
He’s right — these should be local decisions, not state mandates —and to that end the veteran Democrat from McHenry County introduced several bills: One gives 150 local units of government the power to dissolve if they don’t already have it, another extends DuPage County’s streamlining authority to Illinois’ other 101 counties, and a third imposes a four-year moratorium on the state’s ability to establish new units of government.
Franks says the measures would “increase the power of self-determination available to local taxpayers while ensuring the General Assembly doesn’t add to the problem by creating more government to replace anything that’s consolidated.”
Two of his proposals have made it through the House, and a third is struggling, so the outcome is uncertain.
But one thing is clear: This is a significant reform effort in a state where it’s much easier to add government than subtract it.
For instance, it takes only 100 registered voters to start a new park district, but 20 percent of the registered voters to eliminate one.
That would be 11,500 in northwest suburban Arlington Heights.
There are also limitations and ambiguities in state law that discourages efforts to combine library or sanitary districts.
None of this is surprising in a state where government is frequently viewed first as an employer, contractor and tax collector, and last as a service provider.
That may work well for the insiders who benefit, but not the taxpayers who foot the bill or the residents who depend on the services, so Franks is asking for help in getting these downsizing reforms adopted.
“Our report charts a course for future legislation,” Franks says, “and a challenge of such complexity will require stakeholders from across the state to work together with taxpayers and government leaders at all levels.
“The media and groups like the BGA are going to be critical to making the importance of this issue known to a larger audience.”
Franks is right — “smart streamlining,” as the BGA calls it, is complicated and daunting, but it’s also a key to a healthier state, which is vitally important to residents and businesses alike.
So “Dr. Franks” — we appreciate your Rx, and we’ll try to help you administer the bitter diet pill to your corpulent patients.
Let the healing begin.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association