Editorial: When mini-investigations result in big reforms

Tax watchdog reporting is successful when it opens people's eyes to the excesses and frivolities of government spending. But when that reporting prompts reform in terms of changed policies and new laws, it's something to celebrate.

Assistant Managing Editor Jake Griffin, who has been writing a weekly mini-investigation since May 2011 under the moniker Suburban Tax Watchdog, is credited with inspiring a new law, signed last Friday by Gov. Bruce Rauner, that limits the amount of spending on travel by local officials and prohibits the use of taxpayer money for entertainment costs.

Griffin's March 2014 report chronicled spending by College of Lake County officials for travel expenses.

What raised the eyebrows of CLC board Chairwoman Amanda Howland at the time was a $128.87 bill for late-night snacks on June 7, 2013, at the Coq d'Or at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, submitted by a board member.

That snack prompted a change in board spending. Now, board members must provide itemized receipts for all spending over $15 and will not be reimbursed for any costs that fall outside the attendance dates of conventions.

It's what any boss would expect of an employee in a private-sector job.

The same reporting was the foundation for the new state law requiring school districts, community college districts and other non-home-rule units of local government to regulate the reimbursement of all travel, meal and lodging expenses with maximum reimbursements, forms for reimbursement and documentation on who spent the money and for what. Detailed cost estimates must be submitted beforehand. And no money may be spent on entertainment outside the specific function of the travel.

Perhaps most importantly, all of the documentation is subject to public inspection via the Freedom of Information Act. That sort of sunlight is critical to reform.

"Illinois has the highest property taxes in the nation," state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican, said of the legislation he sponsored in the House and that Democrat Tom Cullerton of Villa Park sponsored in the Senate. "We need to make sure our tax dollars are being used wisely and we need to reduce property taxes."

Oftentimes, investigations that reveal frivolous spending, malfeasance or out-and-out criminal ventures start out with the little things, such as restaurant receipts (meals and booze at the Waterleaf restaurant at College of DuPage), or a simple burglary (such as the one at the Watergate Hotel).

In the process, they provide a big help for the public to better manage its money.

State Sen. Tom Cullerton
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