While the state's latest legislative session ends with a whimper and not the big bang of much-needed public pension reform, taxpayers can still chalk up a few important victories.
The Better Government Association advocates for honest, fair, transparent and effective Illinois government. And with those objectives in mind, here's a BGA assessment of the General Assembly's handiwork during the session that ended on May 31:
Dumping legislative scholarships. Say "so long" to the chronically misused and abused General Assembly tuition waivers, also known as legislative scholarships. Lawmakers voted to end the program after the BGA, Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets reported numerous violations of this $13 million annual program, which disintegrated into a corrupt system of political paybacks that mostly rewarded cronies and campaign contributors, not needy students. The BGA advocated for the program's end and Governor Pat Quinn says he'll soon sign the bill into law.
Gambling expansion. The BGA is not against gaming. But we question current gambling expansion legislation, which is based on faulty casino-related revenue projections, slack regulatory oversight and lax taxpayer protection.
Toward the close of the session, the General Assembly passed a gaming bill that was virtually the same as last year's. A follow-up "trailer" bill was introduced in the final hours of session to address some deficiencies but lawmakers have yet to deal a winning hand.
The BGA is concerned with pro-expansion revenue projections that vary wildly -- ranging from $300 million to $1 billion -- and the governor's office says the revenue may be even lower.
In addition, the risk to taxpayers who could ultimately be on the hook for a Chicago-owned casino has not been adequately explained or openly debated. Governor Quinn also has his problems with this bill, which in its current form appears dead in the water. Even so, this issue will not go away and lawmakers have to get it right.
Pension abuse remedies. The BGA recently partnered with the Sun-Times to uncover some troubling examples of pension abuse that legislators are attempting to fix but haven't yet.
Spearheaded by Illinois Senator Kirk Dillard, the Senate passed a bill to repeal a law that allowed former Oak Brook Police Chief Tom Sheahan to sweeten his pension by $30,000 annually, while leaving Oak Brook taxpayers with a $750,000 unfunded pension liability. The bill stalled in the House, where Speaker Michael Madigan questioned its constitutionality, but new legislation is being teed-up that will address that issue and repeal the Sheahan pension perk.
The BGA's policy team will stay on the case until a repeal passes.
Meanwhile, lawmakers crafted a bill to repeal a little-known state law that allows employees of selected trade groups (essentially they are lobbyists) to collect millions in Illinois pensions. The deal came to light in a January BGA and Channel 2 News investigation.
That bill was part of the larger pension overhaul package that stalled in the General Assembly as time ran out. Still, this is one aspect of pension reform that Democrats and Republicans agree with, as does the BGA, and it's expected to pass later this year.
Obviously, there's an overarching need for massive public pension reform, which the four legislative leaders and Governor are pledging to hammer out in a special summer session.
The BGA looks forward to a fair and responsible resolution of this challenging but necessary issue.
Until then, Illinois residents should know that progress is being made on important fronts, some things are getting better, and we'll continue to shine and light on government and hold public officials accountable.
Robert Reed is the BGA's director of programming and investigations. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RReedBGA.
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