- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 13, 2016

January 9, 2016

(Peoria) Journal Star

The Lame Land of Lincoln, indeed

Need another reason to be at best irritated with your state government? Let us count the ways.

- Late last year the Illinois secretary of state stopped sending out license sticker renewal notices because the ongoing budget impasse had made funds tight and the office could save about $450,000 a month. The results are in for November and December, which show renewals down 19 percent and 35 percent, respectively, from those same months the year before. So the state is out the cash in the short term - $101 per sticker for a standard plate, with approximately 173,000 fewer renewals in December alone, so do the math (we’ll do it for you: nearly $17.5 million) - while those who are late will now face fines of $20.



- The Illinois Department of Revenue has announced that it will delay income tax refunds this year because it needs more time to root out fraud, which at about $5 million worth amounts to 83 cents of wrongdoing per return, by our math. We’re all for cracking down on corruption, and the hardship here is minimal, about a three-week extra wait at most. If only the state would reciprocate that expected patience and forgiveness when citizens are late in filing their tax returns.

- The southern Illinois community of Glen Carbon temporarily turned off the water at an Illinois Department of Public Health facility for lack of payment. The city of Springfield wants $6 million in past due utility bills for state properties within its boundaries. How would the city treat any other customer? Perhaps turning off the lights and heat at the Capitol would tempt a budget agreement, at long last. (By the way, Illinois’ governor typically gives his annual budget address in about five weeks. This year, what would be the point?)

- A report out of the lieutenant governor’s office shows what we already knew, that Illinois has more units of government than any other state by a long shot, most of them with the ability to tax, that it’s unnecessary and inefficient and taxpayers are therefore getting the shaft. And we wonder why Illinois is a national bottom feeder when it comes to the number of people moving away as opposed to moving in?

Oh, in a state with its act together, you could rationalize away any one of the above as no great harm, no foul. Alas, we live in an Illinois where citizens can be forgiven for believing their state government is not capable of doing anything right. We’re about out of confidence that anyone now there can fix it.

_____

January 8, 2016

Sauk Valley Media

Less transparency the last thing Illinois needs

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s task force to streamline government and lessen costs came out with its report this week.

The group’s official name is the Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates Task Force.

Nowhere in that name do we see anything about reducing the people’s right to know what their government is up to.

But that would be the end result of one proposal to give local governments the option to post public notices online, rather than in local newspapers.

Public notice advertising protects the public’s right to know what local governments are doing - when they meet, what they spend their money on, when budget hearings are planned, what public works projects they are seeking bids for, when they plan to hold elections, and so forth.

Some government officials apparently believe the money they must spend to keep the public informed about their activities through public notice advertising is not worth it.

If their goal is to keep more of the public in the dark, they might be right.

Their proposal would replace public notice advertising with postings of information on government-controlled websites, which are viewed by far fewer people than those who read newspapers. The poor, elderly, minorities and the disabled are less likely to have online access, so they could be effectively blocked from that information.

Another problem with this proposal is that local governmental websites have shaky compliance records about posting information that, by law, they are already required to post.

The Citizens Advocacy Center studied more than 750 websites of public bodies in Illinois. Only 73 percent complied with posting notices of upcoming meetings; 57 percent complied with posting proposed meeting agendas; and 48 percent complied with posting approved meeting minutes.

Would local governments’ compliance records for posting public notices be any better?

We doubt it.

The public should not be forced to hunt through county, city, school district, park district, township, community college, library district, fire protection district, and other government websites for public notices that may or may not even be there - not when the current system works much better.

Along with finding public notices printed regularly in local newspapers, the public can also find them on a website operated by Illinois newspapers for the past 5 years - publicnoticeillinois.com.

The one-stop, free-access, searchable website has copies of all public notices printed in Illinois newspapers.

This one-two punch is a powerful, efficient tool for Illinoisans who want to keep an eye on how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent.

After all, corruption and government have too often gone hand in hand in our state - much to the dismay and disgust of the public.

Less transparency about the workings of government is the last thing Illinois needs.

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January 8, 2015

Effingham Daily News.

The cost of economic opportunity in Illinois

The more you want things to change in this state, the more they stay the same.

On Monday, a task force appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner recommended 27 ways to shrink Illinois government, with an eye toward saving taxpayers money. Rauner has talked about that sort of thing since taking office. The ideas range from allowing voters to consolidate or dissolve local units of government to changing rules related to paying “prevailing wage” for public projects.

We like some of the 27 recommendations. Others we strongly oppose. But that’s a topic for another day, because those recommendations are just ripples in the turbulent sea washing over Illinois. We’re all drowning . and Rauner is blowing up water wings.

A basic problem with the way government works in this state was underscored at an Effingham City Council meeting on Tuesday. Members agreed to pay a consultant $120,000 over two years to help the city maneuver the apparently convoluted process of getting state approval for a program that helps lure business to a community.

Attracting business is another thing Rauner has constantly talked about. Effingham’s desire to renew its “enterprise zone,” which provides tax breaks and regulatory exemptions and other incentives, dovetails perfectly with the state’s larger goal.

But the city needs to shell out $120,000 of the taxpayer’s money to do that? That astounding fee shows how little is accomplished by tinkering with the details of government when the big picture remains sorely out of focus.

Even the consultants who will earn that fee agree. Steve McClure of Opportunity Alliance LLC used to be the director of what was then the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. Now that department is called the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. It oversees the process of setting up enterprise zones.

But . why should he be needed?

Effingham Commissioner Don Althoff asked just that on Tuesday.

“This is the kind of thing the governor is trying to get away from,” Althoff said. “We’re spending $120,000 over two years and what are we getting?”

Don’t you know, Commissioner Althoff? That’s the cost of economic opportunity in Illinois.

___

January 6, 2016

The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle

Administration fight saps NIU resources

As the administrative elites slug it out at Northern Illinois University, it’s the smaller people who seem most likely to get hurt.

Workers can be forgiven for wondering why the university can find hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay administrators not to work, or to hire expensive attorneys for top administrators, but the coffers seem to be empty when they seek a raise.

The most recent expensive fight began when NIU Controller Keith Jackson was placed on leave from his $150,000-a-year job in May 2014. Jackson has been banned from campus since then, although he’s continued to collect his salary for the past 18 months. He will continue to be paid until February, when he is slated for termination.

Jackson has sued NIU President Doug Baker, the NIU Board of Trustees and others in federal court, alleging that he was unfairly targeted for firing after he refused to approve a contract for former CFO Nancy Suttenfield, who eventually became his boss.

Jackson’s wife, Sharon May, herself a former NIU employee, has sent more than 50 Freedom of Information Act requests to the university, and alerted state investigators to what she said are improprieties.

Perhaps as a result, Baker now is under investigation by the state Office of the Executive Inspector General. In order to defend its president, NIU has approved hiring the Boston-based law firm Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo. The lead attorney on the case, Raymond Cotton, appears to command a rate of $685 an hour, although NIU has redacted the mention of what he charges from public records.

Thus far, NIU has paid the law firm $119,000, and Baker’s office has approval to spend up to $225,000. The firm has represented Baker on the state investigation as well as in connection with Jackson’s lawsuit, records show. State investigators have not said what they are looking into, and we have insufficient facts to judge whether anything inappropriate was done.

It is clear that when Baker took office in 2013, there was a mandate for change - the university had been beset by a series of high-profile, embarrassing incidents in the preceding year and a half. Change doesn’t always sit well with people, however, and sometimes change entails letting employees go. But NIU is a public institution, and there are rules it must follow.

However this shakes out in federal court or in an administrative report, one thing we know for certain is that the university has spent hundreds of thousands already, and those it is supposed to serve - students - have received virtually no benefit. Meanwhile, the university still has received no state funding for this school year, and “program prioritization” is the order of the day.

Our best hope at this point is that the situation is brought to as swift and inexpensive a conclusion as possible.

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