EDITORIAL: Consolidation victory

CHAMPAIGN – The government consolidation movement is slowly — far too slowly — getting off the ground in Illinois.

But it would be unrealistic to be optimistic that the force of changes will ultimately triumph over the forces of reaction. Still, it’s important to celebrate victories, even though they are rare.

So here we go.

Gov. Bruce Rauner this week signed legislation that will allow the county clerk’s office in DuPage County to merge with the now-separate county election commission.

The legislation follows on the heels of an advisory election in DuPage County in which voters gave their approval to the plan proponents say will “save $300,000, improve efficiency and streamline election reporting,” according to the governor’s office.

“This is a step in the right direction in Illinois. We need to continue to root out duplicative layers of government that serve only to burden taxpayers and hinder businesses,” Rauner said while signing the bill into law.

Illinois, of course, has far more than its share of local units of government — 7,000. In fact, it has far more than any other state in the nation, and their existence is part of the reason this state has some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

But even by Illinois standards of excess government, the DuPage formula of maintaining a county clerk’s office and a county election commission is rare. Kankakee County is the only other county of this state’s 102 counties that has a similar arrangement.

Now Kankakee County officials need to follow the DuPage example, merge their two entities and show the proper respect for precious taxpayer dollars.

Vermilion County also is somewhat of an anomaly. Separate entities there — the county clerk and the Danville Election Commission — oversee elections inside and outside Danville.

DuPage County consolidation efforts are being led by county board Chairman Dan Cronin, a former state legislator. He and McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, another former legislator, are leading efforts in their counties to reduce property taxes by eliminating or consolidating unnecessary units of government.

But their efforts require help from legislators, who have a habit of wilting when officials from the affected local entities, like townships, start pleading for job protection.

A year ago, Rauner signed two bills aimed at facilitating consolidation.

One gives county governments throughout the state the authority to dissolve or consolidate entities whose board members are appointed by the county board.

The legislation also allows townships to consolidate with “coterminous municipalities via referendum.” Urbana and Champaign are great examples of cities and townships where coterminous consolidation would make fiscal sense.

The other bill would extend authority that was limited to Cook County to allow the rest of this state’s counties to abolish road districts.

Those bills barely scratch the surface of recommendations made by a task force on government consolidation overseen by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti. (Speaking of the lieutenant governor, that’s another post that ought to be tossed on the ash heap of history.)

Pending in the General Assembly is another consolidation bill, one that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

H.B. 4637, which is sponsored by, among others, state Reps. David McSweeney, a Republican, and Sam Yingling, a Democrat, applies only to McHenry County. But Rep. McSweeney said if it becomes law, he will suggest expanding the legislation statewide.

HB 4637 would allow, with voter approval, the dissolution of townships and road districts and the transfer of their responsibilities to municipalities or county governments.

Given Gov. Rauner’s oft-professed enthusiasm for proposals to reduce the size and cost of government, he can be expected to sign this legislation into law if and when the Senate joins the House in approving this bill.

There is no question that government consolidation is not the kind of sexy stuff that draws voter attention. But if the public ever made the connection between government that has grown out of control and skyrocketing property taxes, people would be marching in the streets.

That’s why our elected officials — in the Legislature, county boards and city councils — cannot be allowed to continue to ignore this important issue.

The progress that’s been made is very limited. There is so much more to do.