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Illinois, give voters the power to dump township government

The Illinois Capitol in Springfield. | Seth Perlman/AP

The Illinois Capitol in Springfield. | Seth Perlman/AP

There’s new hope in Springfield for putting power into the hands of voters when it comes to controlling and trimming their governments.

At nearly 6,963 units, Illinois has more governmental bodies and bureaucracies than any other state in the nation. Texas and Pennsylvania are next, according to the website Governing, and they have only 5,147 and 4,897, respectively.

OPINION

And while there’s been some momentum in recent years around merging governments, streamlining and setting up processes for dissolving bodies like sanitary and mosquito abatement districts in Illinois, the processes largely have been complicated or left in the control of public officials — some of whom, obviously, have a self-interest in keeping governments operating and themselves employed.

Last year, state lawmakers approved a bill that would begin to change all of that. But it was vetoed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner in one of his last official acts, though he characterized himself as a fan of government consolidation.

Now, state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican, has resurrected his attempt to empower voters to dissolve some townships and road districts. McSweeney and state Sen. Terry Link, an Indian Creek Democrat, shepherded the bill Rauner rejected through the General Assembly. Now It’s back. House Bill 348 allows township voters in any of the 17 McHenry County townships to petition for a referendum to dissolve their township government. Township trustees also could act and ask voters if they want their township dissolved. If approved, the township’s assets would be transferred to the county.

The bill also allows for the dissolution of any road district in Lake or McHenry County if the district is responsible for less than 15 miles of roads. Again, road maintenance could be turned over to a municipality, the county or a private contractor.

The legislation also guarantees taxpayers will get at least a 10 percent tax cut, because any taxes levied by the county to provide services for the former township area can’t exceed 90 percent of the amount previously levied.

Five percent of the number of voters who participated in a previous township election could sign a petition to have the question of dissolution placed on a township election ballot.

This is the first time that voters, in a fairly direct and simple way, could be given a process to rid themselves of some governmental bodies.

The legislation will be discussed at 9:30 a.m. Thursday during a hearing before the House Counties and Townships Committee. That committee is chaired by state Rep. Sam Yingling, a Grayslake Democrat and former township official who has supported government streamlining. McSweeney is the committee’s Republican spokesperson.

“It’s almost impossible to get rid of a unit of government. This, you go into one of the highest tax areas in the state and give the voters the power to eliminate a township and have it dissolved into the county,” McSweeney said in an interview. “It’s a good first step. We’ll show how it works in one county and then, hopefully, take it statewide.”

With Algonquin, Nunda and Grafton townships in McHenry County reportedly under investigation by the county state’s attorney, according to the Northwest Herald, McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks supports House Bill 348 and is hopeful Gov. J.B. Pritzker will, too.

Pritzker’s office did not return a request for comment, but Franks said the governor wants government be more efficient.

“I’m an enthusiastic proponent because we need to reduce our property taxes,” Franks said. “Let the voters decide. This is local control, which is what people say they want,” he added. “It’s pretty simple. Do we need an extra layer of government or don’t we?”

Not every township statewide will have voters, or certainly trustees, who think their townships should be eliminated. But if we’re ever going to start getting a handle on reducing bureaucracies and cutting property taxes, we’ve got to give voters direct and simple power to exercise their voices and their votes.

House Bill 348 is the first significant attempt that I can recall.

When he championed the previous version of the legislation on the Illinois Senate floor last fall, Link bemoaned the rhetoric and lack of significant progress toward streamlining.

“We have talked this to death. … I hope that we start getting serious about consolidation,” Link said. “Let’s quit using it as a political stunt, that we’re all for consolidation, but when it comes time to vote you don’t want to vote for it. This is the time the rubber meets the road and we start doing something for smaller government.”

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for government and political reform.