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Illinois’ Democratic lawmakers find Republican Governor Bruce Rauner‘s “turnaround agenda” to jumpstart the state’s economic competitiveness and spur job creation politically toxic. Neither side is in any rush to compromise on legislative term limits, workers’ compensation reform, damage award caps in civil lawsuits or union rights. But if the state’s position as a national leader in economic growth is to be restored, partisans on both sides need to commit to turn around the notorious reputation Illinois officials have earned for dodging their ethical obligations.
The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity gave Illinois an overall D+ in its 2015 State Integrity Investigation. The grade ranks the systems on which the state relies to prevent corruption and expose it when it’s discovered. It’s based on a state-by-state survey of journalists who judge how well state laws promote integrity among officials and how well those laws are implemented.
The Center's humiliating assessment is justified. For one thing, it’s too easy in Illinois to deny citizens and watchdogs access to the information they need to make responsible decisions. Open-records laws are laced with ambiguous and nuanced exemptions which public officials can arbitrarily invoke, forcing the citizens they serve to file lawsuits if, in fact, they can afford the costs and time it takes for judicial relief. Most issues will eventually become moot; public disclosure will have been avoided; and no penalties will have been assessed against any official, no matter how egregious his stonewalling.
Take the case of Phyllis Wise, the University of Illinois’ chancellor who resigned last August after the university discovered that she used a private email account to conceal public business from the public, as Wise herself later admitted. Her emails had been withheld from responses to FOIA requests for no reason but to provide cover for their author at the expense of the rest of us.
Then there's Illinois’ dysfunctional budget process, which earned an F on the Center’s report card. As the budget impasse enters month seven, court orders and partial appropriations have kept the government in operation, with most of the state’s obligations paid out of hard-to-track “special funds.” Those concerned about budget transparency and long-term budget planning have reason to worry: the state’s unpaid bill backlog has grown past $7.1 billion.
One bright spot: Illinois earned the best grade among all the states for its procurement practices. Let’s urge our lawmakers to seek common ground in mandating the highest standards in the nation for all our public accountability systems and start to regain the confidence of business and the public.
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