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Proof is in the pay hikes

Should anyone need proof why the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is important, we offer Exhibit A: the exposure of excessive pay raises granted to high-ranking officials in the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Should anyone need proof why strengthening the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is even more important, we offer the identical reason.

IDOT awarded raises that averaged $6,000 to top employees in mid-January – during a worsening recession and unprecedented state budget crisis, no less. The pay hikes were in addition to cost-of-living increases that all IDOT workers received Jan. 1.

However, IDOT officials apparently believed the increases could be hidden from the public. After all, the Freedom of Information Act was disregarded for years by Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration. If a reporter asked to see public information such as payroll records, the request could be denied with little if any consequences.

Blagojevich still was in power when the raises kicked in. When an Associated Press reporter asked IDOT about it, officials denied that any big raises took place.

The reporter kept pressing. IDOT officials then clammed up, referring additional questions to the office of the new governor, Pat Quinn, a fan of government transparency.

A FOIA request for payroll information finally was granted. Within the hundreds of pages of documents and thousands of salary transactions, the reporter uncovered the truth. IDOT had granted large pay hikes – the largest being 11.5 percent.

When shown the pay raise data, an IDOT spokeswoman finally acknowledged that some raises had indeed been handed out.

Why? To keep “seasoned management and staff” from leaving the department, a spokeswoman said.

What? We detect a major bureaucratic disconnect from reality here.

Illinois’ unemployment rate stands at 8.6 percent. Jobs are being lost left and right. The private sector is freezing or even cutting wages. The state’s budget deficit has ballooned to nearly $12 billion. The state and many of its citizens are struggling to survive.

And IDOT had the gall to hand out big pay hikes?

Unbelievable.

No wonder people are losing faith in their government.

The current FOIA, which has no enforcement provision, multiple exemptions, and a reputation for being a “toothless tiger,” still managed to serve its purpose, but barely.

A strengthened FOIA, such as that which is before the state Legislature, likely would have forced the information out into the open sooner.

Additionally, had a strengthened FOIA been in effect, fear of certain exposure might have prompted IDOT not to raise salaries in the first place.

We call on Gov. Quinn to reiterate his order to state agencies to release public information promptly when requested. We urge him to follow through on a promised inquiry into possible pay hikes at other state departments.

We call on lawmakers to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act as soon as possible.

As for those IDOT pay hikes, if Quinn is serious about his concept of “shared sacrifice,” they should be rescinded.

Immediately.

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