Government consolidation bill headed to governor

Some of the state's more obscure units of local government, from cemetery districts to water authorities, will have the power to consolidate or dissolve under a bill that cleared the General Assembly.

House Bill 5875, sponsored by Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, gives these governments statutory power to eliminate themselves if they so wish. The bill is on its way to Gov. Pat Quinn for approval after it cleared the Senate in a Thursday concurrence vote.

The final report of a consolidation commission created and chaired by Franks revealed that many types of government have no statutory power to be consolidated or abolished. He called the bill a small but important step in paring down the state's 7,000 units of government. Giving governments the power to eliminate themselves is a different strategy – past efforts by legislators to force consolidation by fiat have never had the votes to pass.

"This really creates the conditions necessary for consolidation. Now it will be up to the taxpayers if the taxing bodies need to be changed," Franks said Friday.

Illinois has the most units of government of any state at 6,968, according to a U.S. Census report – the first runner-up, Pennsylvania, has about 4,900. They include eclectic bodies that govern things like drainage, mosquito abatement, cemetery maintenance and county historical museums. McHenry County alone has 30 municipalities, 19 school districts, 17 townships, 17 fire protection districts, 13 library districts, four park districts, two sanitary districts, and two cemetery districts.

While supporters maintain that local government means local control, opponents argue that they result in overtaxation and are breeding grounds for waste and corruption. because the sheer number makes it almost impossible for taxpayers, media and good-government groups to keep an eye on them.

The Better Government Association, one of the state's best-known government watchdog agencies, hailed the bill's passage.

"This legislation provides a clear path toward consolidation for dozens of potentially unnecessary units of government. It's a positive and welcome step toward reducing some of Illinois' bureaucratic bloat," President and CEO Andy Shaw said in a news release.

House Bill 5875 allows the boards of cemetery, civic center, museum, port, solid waste disposal, street light, water authority, and other districts to dissolve and either be consolidated into a similar neighboring district or absorbed into a municipal or county government. The absorbing government would have to vote to approve taking on the district's responsibilities.

McHenry County, which has about 145 taxing bodies, has only two that would be able to eliminate themselves under the law – the Nunda Township and the Richmond cemetery districts.

Efforts in recent years that have failed to pass in the General Assembly include creating a state commission with binding authority to eliminate local governments, and to consolidate school districts into one district for each county. Smaller-scale bills, such as ones eliminating small township road districts, also have failed.

But other efforts have succeeded. State lawmakers are consolidating the number of regional offices of education from 44 to 35. A law passed last year has given the DuPage County Board the power to eliminate 13 of its 400 units of government if they meet specific criteria. Supporters want to give all 102 counties in Illinois that power, but a Franks bill that sought to do so failed in committee.

You can read the text of House Bill 5785 at www.ilga.gov.

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