- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

March 16, 2014

Belleville News-Democrat

Actions speak louder than Kirk’s, Durbin’s words

Illinois’ two U.S. senators, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, claim they’re all for electronic filing of campaign finance reports — but unfortunately not enough to actually do it.

House members file their campaign finance disclosures online, which gives the public quick access to the information. But senators keep short- circuiting measures that would require such timely reporting by them. Instead they file paper reports that later are converted for the Internet. It’s an inefficient, costly system that means the public waits days or weeks to see information about campaign finance, possibly until after an election. Taxpayers pay about $430,000 a year to a private company to key in the data and eventually get it online.

Here’s a statement from a Durbin spokesman about electronic filing: “We’d love to be able to file our reports electronically. … There is a bill pending before the Senate that would require the Office of Public Records to accept electronic filings and Senator Durbin supports the measure.”

And from a Kirk spokeswoman: “The senator is supportive of electronic campaign disclosure filing, and if a bill is brought to the floor requiring all future filings to be done electronically, he would support it.”

Great, but how about backing up those words with action? The spokesmen never explained why their bosses don’t file electronically now in addition to paper filing — something nearly 20 senators already do. That would show their seriousness about the issue and put pressure on their colleagues to approve the change.

Sen. Claire McCaskill from Missouri, one of the voluntary filers, sets the right tone: “As I support legislation requiring electronic filing, I believe that I should voluntarily hold myself to that same high standard until we’re able to get that bill across the finish line.”

This week, contact Durbin and Kirk and ask them to push for a Senate vote on mandatory electronic filing — and call on them to file electronically voluntarily in the meantime.

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March 16, 2014

(Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

More school cuts? Look somewhere else!

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the growing financial storm that will hit the state of Illinois in the not-so-distant future.

As we reported last week, the state shelled out an obscene $318 million in 2013 in tax receipts (translation: your money) to pay the interest on unpaid bills. To put such a large total in perspective, consider this: $318 million would cover the annual budget of the Illinois State Police.

That’s disturbing, especially since the annual total for interest on unpaid bills more than doubled from 2012. There is some consolation from the total debt being cut from $9 billion, but it’s not the fiscal achievement some incumbent lawmakers will tout in their re-election campaigns.

There also is the matter of the still-unpopular income tax hike that will expire at the end of the year. That will deprive lawmakers of $5 billion in tax dollars every year going forward. That’s a scary thought because the new cash brought in by the income tax hike didn’t provide for both debt retirement and more spending. We’re still in the hole.

Unless the income tax hike is extended, an unlikely prospect before the general election in November, some type of corrective action will be required. It might be possible to raise other taxes and fees to generate $5 billion. But which ones and why? It also might be possible to cut $5 billion in expenses. But which ones and why?

Cutting expenses is the better option, but not in the places lawmakers have preferred in recent years - funding for schools and higher education. Those areas already have taken big cuts, but still there are renewed fears of more cuts ahead for education.

State schools Superintendent Christopher Koch sounded the alarm last week. He said an early revenue blueprint from state lawmakers showed schools facing a nearly $1 billion funding cut beginning July 1. That’s a big slice, especially when compared to the nearly $1 billion increase sought by the Illinois State Board of Education to overcome some of the financial difficulties linked to earlier cuts.

It’s time to take education off the chopping block.

State budget cuts are coming. That seems certain. We don’t envy our lawmakers the task of putting the state’s finances in order, even though it’s one they deserve for many years of runaway spending. This time, lawmakers need to consider other alternatives to education cuts - including an overdue revision of the state school funding formula - before sharpening their budget knives.

The people of Illinois can’t afford the eventual price of more educational cuts - a further-damaged state business climate, more unskilled and idled workers, and high-priced strategies to deal with increases in crimes and social problems.

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March 15, 2014

The (Alton) Telegraph

Keeping an eye on transparency

Illinois has never been at the forefront of transparency.

Efforts have been made, especially under Attorney General Lisa Madigan, but it’s a tough fight when going against special interest groups and elected officials who like doing business without public “interference.”

That isn’t the way government should be run.

The general public isn’t always well-versed on the state’s Freedom of Information Act or Open Meetings Act. These acts are by their nature lengthy and at times confusing. But they are important because these two acts establish the guidelines for what public bodies and elected officials can do in private.

It is crucial knowledge for everyone, not just those who make a living reporting on government.

For example, say you wanted to attend the next town council meeting to speak out on an issue that has sparked some controversy. A special meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at a location 26 miles away to discuss the matter. Is this a violation of the Open Meetings Act? Likely, according to an attorney general’s opinion from last year. The binding decision essentially said meetings must be convenient to the public.

Or what if you notice an elected official is sending and receiving emails or text messages during a meeting and ask to see those messages, but are denied because the messages were sent from the official’s personal smartphone? As the city of Champaign found out last year, “it is not unreasonable to conclude communications ‘pertaining to the transaction of public business,’ which are sent to and received by city council members’ personal electronic devices during a meeting are in the possession of the public body.” That was the decision after a lengthy court fight that ended up going all the way to an appellate court.

If a request to review records or take part in a meeting is denied, the person making the request has the right to request the attorney general’s office review the decision.

Awareness of these two acts helps strengthen them against the constant attempts to erode any strength they gain. It also lets authorities know the old standard of transparency is not acceptable and people are willing to enforce their right to keep tabs on government.

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March 14, 2014

The (Crystal Lake) Northwest Herald

Tryon’s bill pushes up transparency

Finding data from state government agencies can be a pain.

It’s exacerbated when it takes months to even appear.

State Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, is taking responsibility to ease that pain with House Bill 1040.

The bill moves the responsibility for posting data to the Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal to the governor’s office, along with mandating all state departments to come up with a plan to more quickly get data posted and updated.

That information includes state employees’ pay, state agency expenses and contracts and local governments’ annual finance reports. The portal was created five years ago through another Tryon bill, after the arrest and impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

“My original version was, when you write a check, it’s put online. When there’s a contract that’s executed, it’s put online. Not in five months, but as soon as possible. I think what’s happening is there has not been consistent posting requirements,” Tryon told the Northwest Herald.

We agree, and it’s a bill we support. More accountability, more transparency and an expedited process are all worthwhile and necessary endeavors on behalf of Illinois taxpayers.

Tryon wasn’t the only local representative to get involved in this, either. State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, was chief co-sponsor in the House, and Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, was its chief sponsor in the Senate, which makes it nice to see at least a handful of locals pushing through reform when it comes to government accountability.

But we don’t want this bill to go to waste, either. If government is going to be more accountable, taxpayers should take advantage of it. Go to www.accountability.illinois.gov and spend some time there. Educate yourself on expenses and finances and what your money is up to in Illinois.

With this bill, it will make it that much easier for you.


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