How local government spends your taxes soon may be a click away

How local government spends your taxes soon may be a click away

Local governments must maintain certain financial records, but not all make it easy for taxpayers to obtain it. A bill headed to the Illinois House floor would put local government financial records online.

Budgets, audits, lobbyist contracts and other local government records should be easy for taxpayers to obtain, but too often they are not.

State Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, introduced House Bill 2810 to help fix that. It is headed to the Illinois House floor for a vote after unanimously passing out of committee on March 26.

Under HB 2810, local governments would need to either host required information on their website or through the Illinois Transparency & Accountability Portal. Information would include: annual budgets and financial audits; the designated Freedom of Information Act officer’s contact info; public-private contracts worth over $25,000; meeting agenda items and minutes; and records disclosing the government’s debts, tax and fee collections, and pension liabilities.

State law already requires local governments to maintain most of the information HB 2810 would require them to publish, but there are compliance gaps. Also, the bill relieves local governments of filling public records requests if the information is already on their web site. Any initial costs to the governments should be offset by avoiding duplicate requests for the same material, plus transparency fights costly corruption and leads to better public policy debates.

Experts have long argued that people are more willing to pay taxes when they see valuable government services in return and when they trust their government leaders. Property taxes are the largest contributing factor to the overall high tax burden in Illinois, and the main funding source for local government.

Unfortunately, Illinois taxpayers see too many of their tax dollars wasted. Compared with residents of the other 49 states, polling reveals Illinoisans have the least confidence in their government. This disconnect between paying taxes and valuing public services, along with low trust in government, helps explain why Illinois taxpayers fled their high tax burdens at a rate of 313 residents per day last year.

In 2018, the Illinois Policy Institute used the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, to conduct a four-year audit of local government financial records. The resulting report exposed $16 million in wasteful spending by select local governments, including expenditures for picnics, beer, candy, cookies, fast food and more. In one case, a municipal government spent thousands of dollars to have marshmallows dropped from a helicopter.

Worse, the report exposed just how hard it can be for Illinoisans to get accurate information about how local governments spend taxpayer dollars. Far too many municipalities and counties do not publish financial information online, and several governments that received FOIA requests from the Institute either could not reply because they did not keep sufficient records or replied with disorganized data that was impossible to decipher.

By sending Moeller’s proposal to the upper chamber, lawmakers in the Illinois House would take an important step toward empowering taxpayers in their districts. Illinoisans deserve transparent local government, and that starts with easy access to information about how their tax dollars are spent.

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