Commentary: Illinois needs the best government, not the most
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 28, 2009 - Illinoisans like government more than they think.
We have nearly 7,000 local taxing bodies, tops among the states and 2,000 beyond closest rival Pennsylvania.
Our count includes 868 school districts, slightly less than exponentially more populous California and Texas.
It features a nation-leading 4,000 special-purpose entities that cover everything from sewers to street lights and mosquitoes to museums. Many justifiably address regional issues, such as water protection, but a goodly portion of governmental girth is masked in inscrutable property tax bills. In fact, we have empowered men and women selected in tiny-turnout, low-visibility races to impose levies without regard to how their agendas square with other community needs.
All this did not occur in the magnificence of Genesis or the mischief of late-night legislative sessions. Voters gradually created much of it through referendums, and they have been apathetic, or at least clueless, about reform efforts lawmakers have spurned in the absence of constituent pressure. So, the bureaucratic bloat and the $22 billion-plus in property taxes it consumes have been abided even as state officials scramble to meet basic needs and grapple with a gargantuan deficit.
But how long can we sustain the overload?
"Illinois has high property taxes in part because we have more units of local government with independent property taxing authority than other states. Units of government are not held individually accountable, nor do they take responsibility for the overall tax burden," says J. Thomas Johnson, president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois.
Johnson chaired the Taxpayer Action Board appointed this spring by Gov. Pat Quinn to help curb state spending. Although its recommendations on health care, pensions and prisons have received the bulk of attention, the panel also spotlighted excesses in educational administration.
The Quinn panel found Illinois averages about 2,400 students per school district, second lowest among the largest states and a stark contrast to almost 38,000 in Florida. It said our state and local taxes support 129 districts with less than 300 students and another 319 with less than 1,000. It pegged potential savings to the state treasury from merging and reorganizing districts at between $60 million and $120 million, not to mention an even greater reduction in local property taxes.
Consolidation pains communities, cowers politicians and consequently has occurred by trickle. Small-town residents fear identity loss. Folks in larger communities resist change for other reasons -- such as revulsion at integrating with long-time athletic rivals. However, despite the best efforts of educators, parents and taxpayers, too many students are receiving an education that inadequately prepares them to compete beyond high school and carries a questionable price tag.
Given the need to make the best possible use of limited resources, we simply cannot continue to accept a structure that permits 17 districts in a county of 40,000 and six in a county of 12,000. Nor can we blithely ignore the labyrinth of other local governing bodies that baffles taxpayers and saps resources.
Two years ago, before he spooned up a feast to comedians and political cartoonists, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer established a commission to focus on streamlining local government in New York. It proposed remedies ranging from merging to restructuring to determining what units could best deliver specific services. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo seized on the ideas and won approval of legislation to facilitate them.
Gov. Quinn's spending reduction board suggested something similar here on education reorganization. It should be broadened or complemented by a New York-style focus on other public entities.
Illinois needs the best government -- not the most.
Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.