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900 funds? State should consolidate them

Illinois’ deadbeat government is hardly a model of efficiency. As pointed out by the authors of “Fixing Illinois,” one problem is the huge number of funds the state has. It’s time to pare them down.

Published: Saturday, July 12, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Fans of the Big Bend State Fish and Wildlife Area near Prophetstown were likely pleased to learn about its expansion. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources paid $550,000 last year to buy 274 nearby acres, which, according to a recent news release, will be used as a preserve for migrating waterfowl and other wildlife, as well as hunting grounds.

The state also expanded Lowden-Miller State Forest near Oregon last year by paying $450,000 for 64 additional acres.

On one hand, the expansion of natural areas seems to be a positive development.

On the other, the state remains in dire financial straits. When Illinois still owes billions of dollars to its vendors ($4.5 billion at last count), how can it justify buying more property?

The simple answer is that the state has multiple funds. Some are capital funds, such as the IDNR’s Open Lands Trust, from which money is appropriated to buy land for conservation and recreation.

Others are operating funds, such as the struggling General Fund, from which the state’s vendors are paid.

So, how many funds does the state of Illinois use to manage its finances?

Might it be in the neighborhood of 60, the number of funds that Wisconsin, our neighbor to the north, has?

Perhaps it is closer to 76, the number of funds overseen by the state government of Michigan, a state nearer our size.

No.

Believe it or not, Illinois has an “estimated 900 funds,” according to the authors of “Fixing Illinois: Politics and Policy in the Prairie State.”

James D. Nowlan and J. Thomas Johnson believe that number is much more than the state needs.

It takes extra work by state employees to keep track of 900 funds, the authors wrote. The possibility of errors is multiplied. And the state’s practice of transferring money from fund to fund (remember Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s infamous “fund sweeps” to finance his pet projects?) creates difficulties in accounting and management.

That’s why Nowlan and Johnson have the following recommendation: “Reduce the number of funds with which state government operates.”

It’s one of 98 eye-opening recommendations they offer in “Fixing Illinois,” a 180-page book that came out in May.

You may recall that Sauk Valley Media carried a four-part series of columns by the authors in May and June that offered highlights of their recommendations.

The book proposes commonsense improvements for the state budget, education, human services, health care, economic development, transportation, and government itself. A chapter is devoted to battling corruption.

Curious about all their suggestions? We encourage you to read the book.

Oh, and about those 900 funds?

Nowlan and Johnson believe their consolidation would enhance transparency and eliminate manipulation. They further suggest that fund transfers be greatly reduced, and that the General Fund become the repository for most incoming revenue, to provide better control when it is spent.

Such actions could lead to more intelligent, efficient management of state money – whether for buying land or paying bills.

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