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updated: 8/15/2014 9:06 AM

Editorial: Sharing blame when state agency ignores law

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  • The General Assembly and a state agency share the blame for a government transparency law that was ignored.

      The General Assembly and a state agency share the blame for a government transparency law that was ignored.
    Associated Press file photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Illinois lawmakers pass a bill to give taxpayers a clearer look at where money goes. Gov. Pat Quinn signs the bill, making it law.

What happens next?

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A) The law takes effect, increasing government transparency.

B) Absolutely nothing.

C) Absolutely nothing, and when unknowing lawmakers later vote to expand that law, nothing happens with that one, either.

Of course, the answer is C), as reporter Jake Griffin uncovered in a report published Wednesday.

The gap between what the law said should be done and what actually happened raises questions about who's really running the show in Springfield, ratchets up voter cynicism and points out a waste of legislative time, money and effort that could have been spent on other major problems left unaddressed.

Lawmakers and the state Department of Central Management Services share the blame.

The issue began in 2012, when lawmakers sought to expand a public database of state workers' names, job titles and salary. They passed a bill adding county, township and municipal employees to the Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal.

But they left a loophole, making the improvement "subject to appropriation." When no money was appropriated, CMS took that to mean it didn't have to do the work. Lawmakers didn't find that out even when they passed another bill last year adding library employees to the database. CMS didn't do that, either.

Obviously, a mechanism is needed requiring state agencies to justify why they don't believe they are bound by any law.

Beyond that, lawmakers and agencies need to agree on cost estimates before votes are taken on a bill. State Rep. Jack Franks, a Marengo Democrat and co-sponsor of the 2012 bill, says adding the data shouldn't have cost CMS anything. CMS claims it would cost $480,000 to add to the database and $240,000 a year to update and maintain it.

Some legislative proposals, but far too few, include fiscal notes detailing their cost, if enacted. Lawmakers might have reasons to skip that step. Who wants his or her name attached to a measure that costs money at a time when the state is so financially strapped? But it's disingenuous to leave that crucial detail unexamined.

We don't have the space to go on about the irony of a government transparency bill that gets deep-sixed without anyone knowing about it. But the people of Illinois need to know that if a law is passed, it will happen.

And if it doesn't pass because we can't afford it, well, that's transparency, too.

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