By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Ronald Reagan, an Illinois native and no fan of government overreach, could well have had the Land of Lincoln in mind when he uttered one of his more famous statements:
“Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
With almost 7,000 local units of government, the most of any state in America, almost everyone agrees there is plenty of taxing, regulating and subsidizing to go around.
But can that largesse be reined in? Can the size of government be reduced in Illinois? Gov. Bruce Rauner is intent on finding out. In March, he appointed a 25-person bipartisan panel to explore ways to consolidate taxing bodies as well as reduce the number of unfunded mandates the state imposes on local communities.
He named Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti to chair the task force.
“Illinois has an excessive number of local government units and the state severely limits local governments’ ability to control their own costs,” Rauner said earlier this year. “Consolidating local government and reducing the burden of unfunded mandates imposed by the state will reduce costs, increase efficiency and improve delivery of services.”
Or, at least that’s the theory. Consolidation and unfunded mandates have been topics for decades in Springfield and government is more expensive and complex than ever.
The consolidation panel has so far held at least five meetings around the state, the latest on June 24 in Springfield. Members attend in person or via telephone. At least one meeting was canceled by lack of a quorum. The panel is mostly a cross section of past and present elected leaders at several levels of government.
The committee is charged with coming up with a set of recommendations by year’s end. While some recommendations may go nowhere, others are likely to become legislation, quickly or over a period of years. The committee discusses and votes on individual recommendations at each meeting, said state Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, a committee member and a longtime advocate of consolidation.
Meetings have focused about evenly between consolidation and unfunded mandates.
“There’s definitely been progress. There have been several meetings and a lot of conversation and public comment,” said Holmes, who was first elected in 2006. Discussions about the size and scope of government have grown in frequency in recent years, she said.
At the most recent meeting, the potential for debate, as well as agreement, was reflected. On one issue, panel members agreed that all of Illinois’ 102 counties should have the same ability that DuPage County has, which is the ability to recommend consolidations within its own county.
“A lot of the consolidation issues are being looked upon favorably,” Holmes said.
Another topic, though, showed the potential for disagreement.
“One of the items we voted on was reforming or eliminating prevailing wage. I voted no on it. I couldn’t see what prevailing wage had to do with either consolidation or mandates.”
Some unfunded mandates have their place, Holmes said. Physical education in schools, for instance.
“I’m not sure I want to leave that up to every individual school. Some would do an exemplary job, but I’m not sure all schools would do that. I want to make sure our children are getting the physical activity they need.”
She agreed that every recommendation regarding consolidation raises the potential for opposition because of jobs that could be lost.
“That’s a legitimate concern,” Holmes said. “And I think it needs to be weighed very carefully. But there may be a way of taking these issues and phasing them in over a number of years so you’re not causing an immediate effect.”
So exactly how big is Illinois’ vast system of governments?
According to various references, the state has:
- 6,963 local units of government
- 1,298 municipalities
- 102 counties
- 1,431 townships
- 866 independent school districts
- 3,227 special districts (including but not limited to library districts, park districts, water and sanitary districts, mosquito-abatement districts, airport and transit authorities, hospital boards and tax-increment-financing districts).
The potential for townships
One less township is on the horizon, after the legislature passed a bill to dissolve Belleville Township, whose services are expected to be picked up by the city of Belleville. If the governor signs a law as expected, the township’s dissolution would still depend on a vote by the majority of the township board and the Belleville City Council.
Current state law prohibits local, individual dissolution of townships and only allows a countywide vote to eliminate every township within the county.
Belleville Township has the sole task of providing temporary financial assistance to needy families that are not yet on state aid. In the last fiscal year, the township provided about $177,000 in financial assistance but spent more than $288,000 on operating costs, Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, who introduced the measure back, has said.
A lot of critics say township government is the biggest single layer of unnecessary bureaucracy, but one big supporter, Alton Township Supervisor Don Huber, said the very structure of most townships makes them tough to break apart.
“Take Jersey County, for instance,” he said. “There’s only 20,000 people in the whole county. There’s like 20 townships. If you take the population of Jerseyville out of there, the population of most of those townships is not many at all. But each of those townships has seven people on their board, and a township collector and a supervisor and an assessor, and they’re all somebody in that community, a really well-entrenched form of government.”
The same issue exists in some places in Madison County, he said.
“To get rid of township government, it would take a successful vote in all 24 townships. Take into consideration a place like Alhambra, where half the people are related to members of the township government, it’s never going to pass,” Huber said.
Schools have tried it many times
Illinois has a lot of experience with school consolidation. In the 1940s, the state had about 10,000 school districts, with many one-room schools and tiny small-town districts. Most are long gone.
Supporters of consolidation in the Wood River area have gone to the polls three times in 15 years in unsuccessful attempts to merge two elementary districts with the local high school district. Wood River-Hartford District 15 and East Alton Elementary 13 sought to align with East Alton-Wood River Community High School District 14.
Attempts to merge the districts into a single K-12 district took place in 2001, 2011 and 2015. The latter two consolidation efforts arose from citizens who petitioned to put the issue on the ballot. A majority of voters in each of the three districts had to approve the question for it to pass.
In the last two elections, voters in the East Alton Elementary side of the high school district approved the question, while voters on the Wood River-Hartford side did not. The overall vote in the entire high school district (which is composed geographically of the two elementary districts) fell short by about a dozen votes.
Dr. John Pearson, who is superintendent of the high school district, was asked about the pros and cons of such consolidation. He stressed that he was speaking for himself as a longtime educator and not for the board.
There are several important advantages to consolidation, and they weigh differently, depending upon whether you’re discussing two or more K-12 school districts merging or “feeder” elementary districts merging with their respective high school districts.
“Regarding two unit (K-12) districts consolidating, the biggest advantage is the old principle of ‘economy of scale,’ which is a simple concept that states that the larger an organization is, the more efficiently it can use personnel. Part and parcel of that notion is that a larger school district can offer more instructional and extracurricular opportunities for a smaller per capita cost than a smaller school district,” Pearson said.
Small districts that seek to merge with neighbors often do so because they realize the educational opportunities are improved in a larger district, he said.
Because of economy of scale, “it stands to reason that if a new merged district can operate in a more cost-effective manner, then that new school board could operate with a lower tax rate than it could with two smaller districts,” Pearson said.
As to the disadvantages of school consolidation, the “classic argument” against some consolidations is that some newly consolidated school districts become so large that they are forced to add layers of administration and central support services, he said. Often, very large districts are accused of being bureaucratic, unresponsive, and out of touch with constituents.
“Of course, in Illinois, we are a long way from that sort of consolidation being the norm. Most of the consolidations in Illinois have been in downstate small town and rural areas where the new unit district is still relatively small,” Pearson said.