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Agenda 2013: Tough audit laws, fair remaps, transparent contracts

In the new legislative session, we encourage area legislators to tackle the tough financial issues. We also encourage legislation to toughen state audit procedures, remove politics from redistricting, and open collective bargaining contracts to public inspection before they are approved.

Two new faces represent the Sauk Valley in the Illinois General Assembly: state Rep. Tom Demmer, a Dixon Republican, and state Rep. Mike Smiddy, a Hillsdale Democrat.

They are joined by two veteran state senators: Tim Bivins, a Dixon Republican, and Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat.

Their attention obviously should be focused on the state’s No. 1 problem: its unsustainable finances – chronic budget deficits, billions of dollars in unpaid bills, billions of dollars in bonded indebtedness, and the enormous public pension debt, which is approaching $100 billion.

When opportunities arise to support reforms in related areas, they should be seized.

The Rita Crundwell scandal in Dixon should be a clarion call for public audit reform in Illinois. The current system, where private audit firms are hired by governmental bodies to conduct audits, proved unable to stop Crundwell, Dixon’s former comptroller, from stealing nearly $54 million in tax dollars from the city.

Demmer and Bivins represent Crundwell’s home town. They stand at ground zero for one of the biggest public corruption cases the state has ever known.

And as they sit in their respective chambers in the Illinois Statehouse, their colleagues can’t be 100 percent certain that other public theft schemes aren’t under way.

We encourage Demmer and Bivins to investigate better ways to ensure that tax dollars are being spent properly by local governments.

Last year, Bivins introduced a bill to require that the state’s attorney’s office be notified in the event that audits and financial reports of public bodies revealed suspected criminal activity or fraud. That’s a good idea.

We have noted previously the benefits of Indiana’s system of auditing cities, school districts, counties, townships, library districts, universities and other entities. A department called the State Board of Accounts conducts those audits with greater independence and authority than is allowed by the Illinois system of privately conducted audits.

In light of the millions of dollars stolen from their constituents, Demmer and Bivins should study Indiana’s public auditing system and work to bring its style of public accountability here.

Speaking of accountability, Illinois’ system of redistricting its legislative and congressional districts reeks of politics. The Illinois Constitution allows politicians to draw the maps every 10 years, and lawmakers in powerful positions simply can’t resist drawing the districts to boost their party’s chances at the ballot box.

Voters end up with fewer choices and less of a chance to hold their representatives accountable.

Bivins, a Republican, represents the 45th Senate District, which was purposefully drawn by Democrats to pack in as many Republicans as possible, so as to diminish GOP voters’ influence in neighboring areas. Bivins was unopposed in the November election; no Democrat bothered to run.

By the way, Bivins now serves in a Senate that has 40 Democrats and only 19 Republicans, which is a record imbalance.

The redistricting reform hill is steep, but we urge Bivins to begin the climb. Iowa’s system of nonpolitical redistricting is the model that Illinois should study and adopt. Since the 1970s, Iowa has had its nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency redraw district maps every 10 years.

In Iowa, it is against the law to bring politics into the redistricting process. Illinois should embrace that example.

The lawmakers who represent Sterling and Rock Falls, Smiddy and Jacobs, are Democrats who are supported by labor unions. We hope they see the value of the Open Meetings Act, because we believe they should support a clarification in that law to further benefit the taxpaying public.

The clarification we seek deals with collective bargaining agreements that have been negotiated between a public body and a public employee union. After a tentative agreement is reached and approved by union members, the contract is brought to the public body (school board, city council, county board, etc.) for a vote.

However, we have observed more than once that public bodies are loathe to release the details of the contract before they vote on it.

Shouldn’t the public – the people who must pay the freight – have a chance to review the contract for at least several days before their representatives on a board vote to approve it?

We think so.

Such a provision would further protect the public as well as show that public employee union members favor openness and accountability.

That guarantee of public inspection of contracts should be written into the Open Meetings Act. We encourage Jacobs and Smiddy to champion its approval.

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