- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

August 16, 2015

The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

State should cut costs by reducing government

Gov. Bruce Rauner made a significant statement last week that may help many citizens understand how property taxes and collective bargaining by unions are related.

Rauner was criticizing a bill that appeared to accomplish one of his goals; freezing property tax rates for two years. But Rauner pointed out that the House bill had omitted the second part of his proposal, to allow local governments more control over what is negotiated in collective bargaining sessions with public employee unions.

Rauner said that without the ability to control costs a two-year property tax freeze would offer taxpayers short-term relief but would cause long-term harm because property taxes would have to increase significantly after the freeze expired. As Rauner sees it, one way to control the costs at the local level is to give local schools boards and city councils more control. School districts are particularly affected because significant portions of their revenue come from property taxes.

The Democrats controlling the General Assembly, and their union supporters, disagree with Rauner’s approach. The bill approved by the House is pretty cynical; it’s a tax freeze in name only. This also seems fertile ground for a bargain. Move some collective bargaining decisions to the local level and place limits on property tax increases might be one solution.

However, we’d also suggest that Rauner get more aggressive about reducing the number of local governments. As has been stated numerous times, Illinois leads the nation in number of local governments. These large and small local governments all take a slice of the tax dollar and are the primary reason Illinois has among the highest property tax rates in the nation.

In addition to paying for cities, counties, schools and community colleges many property taxpayers also pay taxes for a smorgasbord of local and county park and conservation districts; fire protection districts; townships; airports; cemetery, mosquito abatement, water treatment and other taxing bodies. Although most of these “governments” will argue they perform a necessary function, it’s inefficient and costly.

Consolidating these governments is politically difficult. Rauner has appointed a commission to study the issue, which is a small, first step.

But if Rauner’s philosophy is to allow local taxpayers to have more control over their tax bills, then he should advocate giving voters the power to reduce the number of governments. State law makes that nearly impossible at this point.

Local control is a sound philosophy. Most taxpayers would be much more comfortable allowing local governments make more of the decisions that affect their pocket books. That should include how many units of governments taxpayers want to fund.


August 15, 2015

The (Joliet) Herald-News

New website sheds sunshine on Illinois political donations

Did you know the Chicagoland Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC has raised more money than any other political committee in Illinois in the past 30 days (as of Friday morning), bringing in $270,110.31?

Did you know the political committee with the most investments and cash on hand is Citizens for Rauner at $19,641,541.49?

This information is only a mouse click away thanks to the new website Illinois Sunshine, a campaign finance database by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

According to the website, at illinoissunshine.org, the data comes from the Illinois State Board of Elections, which has been collecting this data electronically since 1994. The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform said it built Illinois Sunshine to give journalists, activists and citizens better access to this data. The group gets data from the state board of elections daily.

Money is the root of all evil in government. It buys policy, and it enables power. It flows freely and influences immensely. Follow it, and you’ll figure out why and how laws get introduced and, ultimately, passed.

Illinois Sunshine makes it easier to follow the money in state and local government. The website is easy to use and very intuitive.

You can track money by looking at donations, top earners or taking a closer look at committees.

Clicking on the “Donations” tab allows you see a day-by-day breakdown of the top donations made. For example, if you typed in Aug. 12, 2010, into the donations search box, you’d see that 459 donations totaling $573,346.75 were made five years ago on that date, with the Health Care Council of Illinois PAC receiving the day’s largest donation - $126,728.02 from Carrollton Bank.

Clicking on the “Top Earners” tab allows you to look the committees to receive the most donations in the past year, month, week, day or all time.

The “Committees” tab allows you to look at candidates, independent expenditures, political action committees, political parties or ballot initiatives, such as Support Independent Maps, which has raised $404,770 since June 30.

Illinois Sunshine is data-driven enough for the geekiest of money watchdogs and easy enough to use for the novices to embrace it. This tool should be embraced by anybody who cares about money’s influence on government.


August 13, 2015

Sauk Valley Media

In Illinois, flat is where it’s at

“It is amazing how flat it is here,” a Kentucky woman remarked to an SVM reporter last week in a story about out-of-staters who might move to the Thomson area to work in the new federal prison.

She observed with fresh eyes a characteristic that we Illinoisans, or “flatlanders,” sometimes take for granted.

Indeed, Illinois’ signature prairies are flat - some more so than others. Forests, rivers, and rolling hills can be found in various regions, including the Sauk Valley, to break up the flatness.

When you think about it, the Prairie State’s distinguishing characteristic is a good thing in many ways.

Flat fields are easier to farm.

Flat land is easier to build buildings and roads and runways on.

Flat land creates an open feeling, psychologically. In the countryside, you can often see to the horizon, which many people like.

But the “flat” concept isn’t good when it comes to state finances.

After all, plagued by debt, deficits and unfunded pension obligations, we appear to be approaching flat broke!

Illinoisans should be concerned when state leaders seem to get caught flat-footed about performing basic tasks such as passing a state budget.

Is the state’s flat tax part of the problem? Some politicians think so. Make it progressive, they say.

In Illinois’ 44th day without a budget, it’s the flat-out truth that Democrats and Republicans have failed in their budget responsibilities.

It’s flatly wrong for elected officials to dawdle during the winter and spring, then hold the well-being of vulnerable Illinoisans hostage well into the summer.

Before state government flat lines, leaders must renew their efforts to get the job done.

If not, some might just fall flat on their faces come re-election time.


August 11, 2015

Effingham Daily News

Open meetings guarantee free exchange of ideas

We’d like a word with Effingham Mayor Jeff Bloemker regarding his comments at the First Friday luncheon about the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Bloemker, the executive director of Heartland Human Services, said the toughest part of the mayor’s job he was elected to in April involves the Open Meetings Act. Because the Effingham City Council has just five members, Bloemker said the law mandates that no more than two can meet at any time without issuing a public notice of the meeting.

We’ll inject an important point here, quoting the law: “. citizens shall be given advance notice of and the right to attend all meetings at which any business of a public body is discussed or acted upon in any way.” There are some exceptions. The spirit of the law, however, is to err on the side of openness.

In a small town as vibrant as this, there are often times when three or more elected officials will be in the same place. Parades and festivals, church and charitable gatherings. By all means, officials should take an active part in such events.

Just don’t huddle somewhere to discuss whether to raise taxes, or some other issue of public interest.

“I think this law is dysfunctional,” Bloemker told the audience at the chamber of commerce luncheon. “The Open Meetings Act inhibits the free exchange of ideas.”

That’s one of the craziest things we’ve ever heard from a public official. The Open Meetings Act guarantees the free exchange of ideas.

Anyone steeped in business might find the requirement of public discussion by a public body somewhat frustrating. We’re sure that Bloemker’s not the first person from a business background who has been elected to public office to feel that way. Right, Gov. Bruce Rauner?

Government is not a business. Oh, there are best practices in private business that should be adapted to public business. But others just don’t translate. Government of the people, by the people, for the people is hard work. We return to the Open Meetings Act for an explanation of why it’s so crucial:

“It is the public policy of this State that public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and that the people have a right to be informed as to the conduct of their business.”

Mayor, it may be easier to negotiate deals behind closed doors, free of scrutiny. But the people’s business belongs to the people. If a public official feels hindered by public scrutiny, maybe public officialdom isn’t the right life choice.

We like much of what Mayor Bloemker has done so far. He’s been visible and outspoken about the direction he wants to lead Effingham, playing to its strengths and seeking ways to alleviate its weaknesses. So, we’re not judging his performance on this one comment - no matter how vehemently we disagree with it.

Just keep this in mind: As those pesky members of the public listen in as you conduct business publicly, they may have a worthwhile contribution to make. We’re proud of the passion and thought that the people who live here repeatedly demonstrate. Make use of it.

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