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McCALEB: Reasons to be thankful in tax-and-spend Illinois

(Illinois News Network) — Many Illinoisans will be hard-pressed this week to find something to be thankful for with regard to a state government that is taxing and spending its way to insolvency.

The General Assembly passed a $5 billion income tax increase well beyond the end of the scheduled legislative schedule that went into effect retroactive to July 1. And yet the spending plan that was approved alongside that tax hike still is nearly $2 billion out of balance. So Illinoisans are taxed at a higher rate, and we still haven’t resolved our out of control spending. Call that a lose-lose situation.

But this is Thanksgiving week so I’ve decided I’ll interrupt my weekly rant in favor of a column more in the spirit of the holiday.

Besides, there are enough examples around Illinois of people in government or in taxpayer-funded institutions who are doing their small part to improve the state’s fiscal climate, and they don’t get nearly enough attention.

Let’s start with Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where Chancellor Carlo Montemagno has recognized that administrative bloat is killing the state’s university system.

“We are spending too much time and money on administration, and not enough on teaching and research,” Montemagno told students, faculty and other staff in a video message last week. “[Adding] to this challenge is outdated ways in which our departments function, limiting innovation and collaboration.”

Montemagno is right, sadly. For years, Illinois’ colleges and universities added highly paid administrators at rates much higher than enrollment increases.

“At the same time tuition and student debt are rising at a breakneck pace, the administrative systems of public institutions have expanded into sprawling behemoths, with some of those at the very top enjoying lavish perks,” a 2015 report from the Illinois Senate Democratic Caucus says.

The net effect has been unaffordable tuition costs and the outmigration of some of the state’s best young talent. Between 2000 and 2014, Illinois lost more than 150,000 students on net to other states, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Consider what that means: Our next generation is looking at Illinois’ future and heading elsewhere.

Of course, SIU’s well-compensated staff prefers the status quo, and is pushing back hard. But Montemagno is staying the course.

“We cannot continue to do what we’ve always done and expect a different outcome,” he said. “We must change.”

Thank you, chancellor, for having the foresight to recognize that the university system is broken and can’t survive without dramatic reforms. And for having the guts to call it out.

Then there’s LaSalle, a city of about 9,600 residents nestled halfway between Rockford and Bloomington, where Interstate 80 meets I-39.

LaSalle Mayor Jeff Grove has instituted taxpayer-friendly expense policies that restrict the amounts of money elected officials and staff can request for reimbursement when traveling for city business.

For example, three city staffers and one alderman recently attended the Illinois Municipal League’s annual three-day conference in Chicago. The total cost for taxpayers for all four to attend was $1,296, and $1,090 of that covered the conference’s registration fees.

The remaining $206 in expenses covered one meal each for the attendees and parking. Three of the four also car-pooled.

“There was no mileage reimbursement this year as a city vehicle was utilized to transport attendees and lodging is not an expense covered by the city,” City Clerk Carrie Brown told Illinois News Network. “Meals, aside from one lunch, are not a covered expense.”

Taxpayers don’t often see that kind of fiscal discipline from their local governmental units.

Is it a game-changer for Illinois? No. But it is more than a symbolic gesture. It’s good local policy. LaSalle taxpayers should be thankful, and the state’s other cities, villages, townships and school districts should consider similar spending policies.

I’ll conclude with McHenry County government in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where County Board Chairman Jack Franks and the full County Board are reducing their property tax levy by 11.2 percent this year and taking a leadership role in urging other local governments within the county to do the same.

Last year, McHenry County Board members also voted to opt out of their taxpayer-funded pension system, and now the board is developing a plan to encourage countywide elected officials to do the same.

“The County Board led the way when it decided last year to eliminate its own IMRF pensions, but state law currently prevents us from taking the next logical step and eliminating it for countywide officeholders,” County Board member John Reinert of Crystal Lake said in a statement. “This plan will instead give countywide elected officials an incentive to manage their own retirement like private-sector employees.”

Are these fiscally responsible public officials going to turn Illinois’ dire fiscal condition around on their own? Of course not. But they provide much-needed examples of a sensible path forward.

Thank you, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Dan McCaleb is a veteran editor and has worked in journalism for more than 25 years. Most recently, McCaleb served as editorial director of Shaw Media, the top editor of the award-winning Northwest Herald in suburban McHenry County and news director of Illinois News Network and its digital hub ILNews.org.

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McCALEB: Reasons to be thankful in tax-and-spend Illinois