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Nobody likes a government diet — except taxpayers

The Illinois State Capitol Building. Gov. Rauner has signed a bill making it easier for counties to reduce the number of small government units. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Diets are no fun.

We trade the rich, tasty foods we adore for low-calorie meals we abhor.

Want to lose weight? Eat what you hate.

Rhyming aside, the diet scenario also applies to bureaucratic bloat — excess government, not pounds — and putting public bodies on strict diets can be as daunting, unpleasant and painful as personal weight loss regimens.

OPINION

But here’s the good news: Dozens of elected state officials from both parties are teaming up with reform groups, including the Better Government Association, to back more “smart streamlining” legislation than any previous year.

As I’ve written and spoken about before, Illinois has about 7,000 individual units of government, most in the country by far, so it’s no surprise our property taxes are among the nation’s highest.

It’s unfair to taxpayers, unhealthy for business and fiscally unsound, but downsizing is a Herculean task because every one of those government offices has staffers who want to keep their jobs and benefits, and political allies in the state legislature who protect them.

That’s why, in recent years, the General Assembly has rebuffed most efforts to facilitate the consolidation or elimination of duplicative or unnecessary taxing bodies.

One exception is State Sen. Dan Biss, who led a successful 2013 campaign to eliminate Evanston Township and roll its limited responsibilities into the coterminous suburb of Evanston.

Another is Du Page Board Chairman Dan Cronin, who got a green light from state lawmakers the same year to develop a pilot program aimed at consolidating or eliminating up to 13 units of government in Illinois’ second largest county.

So far Du Page has only gotten rid of three small offices because, Cronin laments, “It’s much easier to create a local unit of government than dissolve one, and I have plenty of scars to prove it.”

Cronin and Biss may have scars, but they also have a lot of company these days — an increasing number of state lawmakers joining a downsizing movement that’s gaining momentum.

The Illinois House recently passed a landmark bill that would give every county the same streamlining power Du Page has.

Lawmakers were also seriously considering a constitutional amendment to abolish the office of lieutenant governor before politics derailed the idea, at least temporarily, and there were proposals to merge the state Treasurer and Comptroller into one office.

On the civic front, the BGA and Metropolitan Planning Council are part of a new, bipartisan Transform Illinois Coalition that announced support earlier this month for 22 streamlining bills, including several recommended by a study group established by the Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Many of the bills won’t pass this session, but the ones that do represent significant steps in the long process of identifying offices to merge or dissolve, studying the pros and cons, and letting local voters have the final say.

It’s wonky — like watching paint dry, some might say — and it will take years, if not decades, to shed enough bureaucratic bloat to bring Illinois in line with other states.

But many of the same Springfield lawmakers who can’t agree on a budget seem to agree on “smart streamlining”— taking some of the onerous weight of local government off the sagging shoulders of overburdened taxpayers — and that’s encouraging.

The downsizing diet may not be fun, but legislative majorities are finally realizing we can’t whip Illinois into healthy fiscal shape without it.

Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga