Hey, Springfield: The door is open to real change now

With the state’s primary soon to be so close to the time when actual policymaking gets done, how about accomplishing something significant that the politicians can use in campaigns? Here’s a to-do list.

The state’s two major political parties just unofficially kicked off the campaign season at their annual rally days at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. With the primary election date next year moved from March to June 28, there’s potential for a much different political dynamic to be in play.

That primary election comes just under a month after the traditional end of the spring legislative session, so the campaign posturing and maneuvering in that session could be intense, at least for those who have contested races.

Wouldn’t it be a breath of needed fresh air if party leaders took advantage of this change and worked with their rank-and-file members to pass some laws for which the people of Illinois have been yearning for years?

Look, the Democrats predictably just crowed about all they’ve accomplished, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker already paid for billboards touting Democratic pluses. Predictably, the Republicans pointed out where the Democrats have come up short. 

With the primary so close to the policymaking, how about accomplishing something significant that the politicians can use in campaigns?

Remember the commission that was formed a few years back to ease property taxes and consolidate government? Nothing got passed into law. And yet, just last week, the Cook County treasurer’s office released a report revealing property tax increases hit predominantly Black and Latino suburbs the hardest. Specifically, 6 of the 10 communities with the largest total residential tax increases were in majority Black or Latino areas, the office reported. That is an inequity in desperate need of a solution.

It’s a safe bet to say everyone would like a break on property taxes in Illinois, but little ever is accomplished. 

Illinois lawmakers could pass a plan to extend a moratorium on the creation of more local governments in Illinois. Prior to a now-expired moratorium, 384 new local governments were created since 1998. It bears repeating that the Civic Federation issued a report in April that found Illinois has 9,000 governments, far more than what the federal government has reported.

Why not use the time now before that June primary to achieve some efficiencies? Pass the Citizens Empowerment Act that would give voters more chances to approve consolidation.

For years, Democratic state Rep. Rita Mayfield has been trying to win approval to create a school district efficiency commission to push for referendums to consolidate some of Illinois’ 852 public school districts. Previous commissions pushing school consolidation date back years, and their solutions languish, despite the fact that school districts typically make up two-thirds of property tax bills. For years, Republican state Sen. Sue Rezin has pushed a plan to allow local voters to approve sharing of school superintendents, but it never gets done. How about passing both bills and letting both political parties take some credit at election time?

Next year also would be a terrific time to pass some stronger ethics legislation. Democrats and Republicans both have had to admit this year that what they did pass wasn’t nearly enough. Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope’s resignation and claim that the ethics package makes her job tougher put another exclamation point on the problem. Empower that office to do its investigative job, issue subpoenas and publish all findings of wrongdoing without approval first from lawmakers. Add a nonpolitician or two to the Legislative Ethics Commission to enhance its credibility. Expand the length of time to two years that lawmakers must wait after they leave office to start lobbying their colleagues. Require lobbyists to disclose when they also serve as campaign fundraising bundlers for candidates so the public knows who has extra influence in campaign financing.

And then there’s redistricting. This year’s mapping will be in effect for the next 10 years. Can we agree now to find some compromises for the 2030 cycle that could help Illinoisans see more competition on their ballots? Can we at least agree that the state constitution’s clause calling for a winner-take-all drawing at random to determine which party controls the cartography was a mistake? 

The push to move the primary to June ought to be made permanent. That could boost voter participation. And our politicians would be wise to take advantage of moving the primary closer to the end of legislating to approve laws and policies that make for much smarter politics.

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for ethical and efficient government.

This article originally appeared on Crain’s Chicago Business.