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updated: 2/10/2012 7:59 AM

Put a price tag on every Illinois bill

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

At the grocery store, you check the price before you put an item into your basket, especially if you're strapped for cash.

That's the comparison the Illinois Policy Institute's Kristina Rasmussen makes in pointing out that state lawmakers also need to see a price tag before deciding whether to support a bill up for vote in the General Assembly.

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It's an argument we can buy.

In fact, it seems too logical to require much argument. Until we found out from Rasmussen's group that only nine of 650 new laws passed by the Illinois General Assembly last year came with cost analyses, called fiscal notes, showing how they'd affect the state's dire financial picture, as Daily Herald Staff Writer Jake Griffin wrote this week in his Suburban Tax Watchdog column.

Lawmakers might not have been completely clueless about the costs of the other 641 new laws passed last year in Illinois. But if a financial analysis isn't linked to the proposed legislation as a fiscal note, it isn't always made public.

So even if lawmakers weren't entirely in the dark, taxpayers often were.

In fact, fiscal notes in Illinois are used as political tools as frequently as they're used to convey dollars-and-cents information. In those instances, Rasmussen said, a fiscal note is "a tool to kill a bill," requested by lawmakers who want to stall a bill's progress or added by agencies that oppose a bill that would affect them.

The remedy seems obvious.

Adding a fiscal note to every bill would convey crucial information about a bill's financial impact while erasing the opportunities for selective political game-playing. That's what state Sen. Pamela Althoff, a McHenry Republican, proposed last year. The bill never made it out of committee despite support from 19 other senators, both Republicans and Democrats.

And now, the agency that presumably would do the financial forecasting has an analysis of its own. Dan Long, head of the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, says adding fiscal notes to the more than 5,000 bills filed some years would require dozens more staffers and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Talk about a bill killer.

Yet, the idea of fiscal accountability and discipline is too tantalizing to give up so easily.

What about another approach? Let legislative or state agency staffs prepare fiscal notes for most bills, with Long's commission stepping in to analyze the costs of bills expected to have the largest effect on the state's budget.

Althoff's trying again with a proposal requiring fiscal notes on laws regarding Medicaid, the state's costliest program. It's certainly a laudable beginning -- one we urge legislators to support. But it shouldn't be the final word.

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