Andy Shaw: A wonky Springfield sideshow

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Lieutenant governor candidate Evelyn Sanguinetti, shown at a campaign event with Gov. Bruce Rauner before their election, chairs a state task force charged with finding ways to streamline government in Illinois. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

There’s a quiet conversation going on in Springfield these days, far from the bright lights and heated rhetoric of Governor Rauner’s battle with Democratic lawmakers over taxes, spending and pro-business reforms.

And despite its relative obscurity, watchdogs like the Better Government Association are paying close attention to the deliberations of the Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates Task Force because, even with its laughably bureaucratic name, it’s important.

Created by a Rauner executive order in February, and chaired by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, the 24-member panel is “to make recommendations that will ensure accountable and efficient government…in the State of Illinois.”

It picks up where a legislative commission chaired by State Rep. Jack Franks from McHenry County left off last year.

The task force has been discussing the cost of mandates imposed on local governments by the state without commensurate financial support, and amplifying the BGA’s campaign for “smart streamlining” — merging, consolidating and eliminating unnecessary taxing bodies in a state with 7,000 of them, most in the country.

Illinois residents pay $2,350 per capita in various taxes to support those units of local government, fourth-highest rate in the country, according to a BGA analysis of census data.

Illinois ranks second in per capita taxes collected by school districts, and third for “special-purpose” districts like fire protection, libraries and parks.

Last month, at its sixth meeting, the Sanguinetti task force issued its first set of recommendations, and promised more to come.

One recommendation — imposing a four-year moratorium on the creation of new government units — has already been approved by the General Assembly.

That was a no-brainer, but two other streamlining proposals are likely to face ongoing legislative pushback: One makes it easier to put downsizing initiatives on the ballot for local voters to consider; the other enables every Illinois county to consolidate some of its special-purpose districts.

Two years ago the legislature authorized DuPage County to conduct a pilot downsizing program — it’s projected to save tens of millions of dollars — but since then state lawmakers have blocked efforts to empower other counties to consider similar initiatives.

Why? Intense pressure from friends and political allies in those small taxing bodies who fear a loss of jobs, benefits and perks.

So the challenge when the task force issues its final report later this year is to convince state legislators to give it the careful consideration it deserves, with an eye on protecting taxpayers, not bureaucrats.

Streamlining is among the slowest moving, wonkiest reform issues in Illinois, which is why it flies under the radar, but we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the work of the task force, or discounting consolidation as a viable long-term way to economize.

The cupboards of Illinois governments are bare, and we need to find solutions, because postponing corrective action only deepens the crisis.

It’s time for the uncomfortable conversations and painful choices “smart streamlining” requires, like we should have engaged in years ago, before Chicago, its public schools, the State of Illinois and dozens of smaller local governments reached the edge of the fiscal cliff.

Look at it this way: Every wasteful, excessive, duplicative and unnecessary taxing body we eliminate is one more burden lifted off the shoulders of our children and grandchildren in the years ahead.

That should be enough incentive for all of us.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga

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