Good government bill could mark turning point in statewide transparency

Heather Weiner

Heather Weiner is formerly the Illinois Policy’s Government Affairs Staff Attorney.

Heather Weiner
April 6, 2015

Good government bill could mark turning point in statewide transparency

HB 2717 would give taxpayers access to spending and decision-making documents

Last week’s committee deadline in the General Assembly shed light on what policies would advance to potentially become law this year. One of these bills addresses an ongoing challenge to both the operation and reputation of the state of Illinois – a lack of transparency in government. Illinoisans pay some of the highest taxes and have the most units of government of any state in the nation. Yet many would be hard pressed to find comprehensive information on how those governments are bringing in and spending their tax dollars.

House Bill 2717, sponsored by state reps. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, and Peter Breen, R-Lombard, passed out of the Counties and Townships Committee on March 26. If passed into law, it would require units of local government and school districts with budgets over $1 million to post a series of documents online that would bring taxpayers into the loop on how each unit allocates, spends and makes decisions. The information it would require to be published includes budgets, revenue and expenditure data, pension debt, contract-bidding processes, lobbyist agreements, contact information for Freedom of Information Act officers and elected officials, and public meeting notices and materials.

This bill is necessary for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, every budget that a unit of government passes, every contract it enters into and every meeting it holds is an act that taxpayers are financing and have a right to know about.

But beyond the ever-present right to transparent government, there is a special element of timeliness to opening up local government decisions now – namely, the growing conversation surrounding local government consolidation. The information this bill requires gives a far more comprehensive snapshot of how each unit operates, allowing future discussions and votes on consolidation to be conducted in a responsible, fact-oriented way.

While the opposition to the bill spent the committee hearing calling it a “burdensome mandate,” state Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, one of the bill’s cosponsors, highlighted that this should not be considered an unfunded mandate at all given how easy it is to maintain a website, as well as the relief transparency provides to local governments down the line. Everything HB 2717 requires could be requested by individual citizens through Freedom of Information Act requests, which are costly and cumbersome for local governments to comply with. A one-time online posting of a record relieves these governments of the need to produce individual requests.

While some units of government are already putting these documents on their websites, there is an amazing lack of consistency across the state. As state Rep. Margo McDermed, R-Frankfort, recounted in the committee hearing on the bill, many of her constituents told her that school districts that claimed to have posted budgets online actually hide these records so deep on a website that the average person could spend hours looking. This is not what transparency means. If HB 2717 passes into law, it would be a dramatic step in making sure not only that this information is posted online for all taxpayers regardless of where they live, but also that it is easily accessible for all.

This bill could prove a turning point for Illinois’ reputation of big government and behind-closed-doors decision-making. Illinois Policy Action will continue to work on this and other policies that allow taxpayers to pull away the curtain and empower them to make decisions about what constitutes good government going forward.

Image credit: Jeremy Wilburn

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