We’ve seen the equivalent of elected officials rubbing their hands together in glee now that they know $7.5 billion is on its way to Illinois with the approval of another federal COVID relief bill.
Chicago is in for $1.8 billion, public transit will get a chunk, K-12 schools in Illinois get $5 billion, and higher education gets $1.3 billion.
“The American Rescue Plan Act will provide emergency funding to cities and states across the country,” says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan government research organization. “However, without action to get their respective fiscal houses in order, Illinois and Chicago will quickly find themselves back in the same place they were before receiving assistance—with large structural budget deficits, untenable and growing pension obligations and the worst-rated credits in the United States.”
Let’s not forget that Illinoisans are still struggling from this pandemic and another $1,400 is not going to save many of them. Many local governments in Illinois also are facing debts and deficits from shrinking sales tax and other revenue hits.
So isn’t this the ideal time for government officials at every level to be looking at ways to streamline, economize and consolidate for struggling taxpayers? Why aren’t we hearing more about that?
It’s long been established that Illinois has far more units of government than any other state in the nation. Indeed, while the United States Census of Governments found Illinois topped the list with 6,918, the Civic Federation recently published a new inventory that found Illinois actually has 8,923 local governments. Only Missouri and Texas have more county governments than Illinois.
We have 1,426 townships and road and bridge districts grabbing $750 million in taxes, the federation found. And 17 of those townships share the exact boundaries of municipalities, making them a prime target for merging. So, lawmakers, let’s fast-track HB 1775, which allows townships coterminous with a municipality to dissolve.
No other state has more municipalities and one-third of them have fewer than 2,500 residents. How about a look at consolidating some of those with nearby communities?
We have 3,204 so-called special districts, more than any other state. That’s not an honor. It’s overkill.
Local governments collected $31.8 billion in taxes in 2018, and governments outside of Cook and the collar counties accounted for 23 percent of the property taxes statewide, the federation found.
Many Illinoisans soon will be voting for those new township trustees, fire protection district trustees, library and school board members, and mosquito abatement trustees.
All those salaries and pensions and administrative costs add up. That $1,400 isn’t going to make a dent in my property tax bill or yours, so let’s make the most of the opportunity in this pandemic to swallow hard and start streamlining.
Nothing ever came of all the talk from Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers two years ago about government consolidation and property taxes. Now is the perfect time to start cutting and consolidating from the taxpayers’ perspective. And hey, it might even make for good campaign fodder, too.
There are plenty of legislative efforts in Springfield. In fact, too many of these bills are ones we see year after year because lawmakers don’t seem to find the courage to approve them.
Let’s get HB 0007 approved to look at reorganizing the more than 850 school districts in Illinois and why not enact SB 1637 to allow school districts to share administrators? We definitely need HB 0433, which allows voters to petition to dissolve local governments.
Plenty before me have said we never should let a good crisis go to waste. Let’s not pass up this opportunity to trim the government excess that drags down taxpayers.
“It would be prudent,” Msall adds, “for the Illinois General Assembly and public officials statewide to take up the causes of pension reform, government consolidation and other best practices to stabilize the finances of the state of Illinois, city of Chicago and governments across the state.”
Amen to that.
Madeleine Doubek is the executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for ethical and efficient government.