A new act in Springfield

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Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, center top, presides over swearing-in ceremonies in the Senate chamber at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015

It’s show time again in Springfield, and the supporting cast is the same as last year — more than a hundred Democrats who maintain veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.

But there’s a new star, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, who enters stage left with a fresh script that promises to replace “business as usual” with fiscal and ethical reform.

Act I will focus primarily on the state’s financial crisis — a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, stacks of unpaid bills, a broken tax system, and an unresolved pension crisis.

The audience, including the Better Government Association, will be applauding sensible tax and spending plans, but we’ll also be following smaller story lines that focus on watchdog issues, including protection of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

FOIA was strengthened five years ago, in a moment of legislative enlightenment, to give Illinois one of the nation’s best open records laws — essentially making all government documents available to the public, and limiting exemptions to proprietary information like personnel records, trade secrets and internal policy deliberations.

Sadly, those few exemptions have grown to a couple dozen in recent years as legislators passed laws that undermine FOIA, including roadblocks to thwart individuals who strain the system with frequent or voluminous FOIA requests.

Unfortunately, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to an isolated problem, and it unnecessarily restricts access to public information.

FOIA, which facilitates our ability to understand how government operates and spends our tax dollars, should be vigorously defended, along with our First Amendment freedoms.

So we’ll join the fight to strengthen FOIA and beat back new attempts to weaken it.

We’ll also be urging lawmakers to preserve reforms aimed at preventing double dipping, end-of-career “sweeteners” and other add-ons that contribute to the state’s crippling pension debt.

Those reforms were part of the landmark pension bill approved by lawmakers at the end of 2013, and if the Illinois Supreme Court finds the benefit reductions in the bill unconstitutional, lawmakers should move quickly to codify prohibitions on the rampant abuse we’ve been documenting for years.

We’ll also continue to advocate mergers and consolidations that eliminate unnecessary government offices and save millions of tax dollars in administrative costs.

A good start: Combine the state offices of treasurer and comptroller.

A good follow-up: Give local governments the authority to streamline overlapping and duplicative agencies and offices within their jurisdictions.

On the accountability front, lawmakers agreed last year on a stronger economic disclosure statement, but not in time to pass legislation. They should finish the job this year.

Election reform is also on our agenda, and we’re encouraging legislators to consider proposals that match small political contributions from individuals with grants in tax dollars.

The goal is to help everyday citizens compete as candidates or contributors with the deep pockets of special interests.

Also on the radar screen: Additional reforms to help prevent wrongful convictions, and to illuminate oversight of gaming, medical marijuana and the privatization of state assets.

So enjoy a dramatic Act 1 in Springfield, which focuses on the state’s daunting fiscal challenges.

But stick around after intermission for the subplots we’re watching. They may not be as sexy or compelling as Act 1, but they have to be performed professionally if the show expects to garner good reviews.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga

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