For all newcomers to Champaign-Urbana who are from out of state — and if this is a normal year at the University of Illinois there are about 14,000 non-Illinois students at the UI this fall — welcome to the government twilight zone.
In so many ways, Illinois is a land where good government goes to die.
In the last few months, for example, our governor ordered that state legislators not be paid because he didn't like what they hadn't done; the Urbana Free Library mistakenly removed more than 9,000 books from its shelves, packed them up and sent them away, only to request they be returned; a local mass transit district that never provided mass transit service finally went out of business after collecting taxes for seven years; and it was discovered that a member of a local housing authority board was never appointed to it although she has been serving for four years.
No lie. And that's a tiny sample of the mess, focused mostly downstate.
Chicago is in a different league, where recently a congressman (Jesse Jackson Jr.) was sentenced to 30 months in prison and his wife (Sandra Stevens Jackson) got 12 months. Another former Chicago congressman, Rod Blagojevich — who also is a former Illinois governor — is scheduled to remain a resident of the Federal Bureau of Prisons until May 23, 2024.
Lest you get the wrong impression, this is nothing new. Big — and bad — government is an Illinois tradition, and it has plagued both parties and downstaters as well as Chicagoans.
Here are numbers to ponder: Illinois, according to the Census Bureau, had 6,968 units of government in 2012, or 12.77 percent of all the local governments in the United States. The not-so-funny part: that percentage is worse than in 1942. Even though thousands of Illinois school districts have consolidated in the last 71 years and the state has since got a new Constitution that was supposed to improve governance, we had a more modest 9.78 percent of all local governments in the U.S. in 1942.
That's the big part. Here's the bad part.
We had an auditor of public accounts — the guy in charge of keeping track of the money — who embezzled more than $6 million in state funds, and a secretary of state who died and left $800,000 in cash in shoeboxes and briefcases in his Springfield hotel room.
In Champaign County we had a state's attorney — the guy in charge of watching all the other guys — who was stealing county funds, a Champaign mayor who was indicted for malfeasance one day and re-elected six days later, and a U.S. Senate candidate whose campaign was bankrolled by utility company officials at the same time he was a member of the Illinois Commerce Commission that was supposed to be regulating utilities.
There are way too many other wretched examples, but my favorite remains the 51 Illinois newspapermen who were on various state payrolls from 1943 to 1949 and received a total of $480,000 in state funds for performing a variety of services. One served as director of agriculture, another was a hearing officer for the commerce commission, many served as "messenger clerks" or "field investigators." Others wrote speeches or press releases or confessed that they did nothing. Gov. Dwight Green also had plenty of other people on the state payroll, including University of Illinois football players.
Sometimes it's not corruption, but ineptitude, incompetence or politics that creates the problems.
That seems to be the case at the Urbana library, where a book "weeding" process went off the rails and 9,343 books were removed from the stacks before the process was halted. Many of the books are back and more are to return to the shelves, but a lot of time and expense has been wasted, and the library's veteran executive director is on the way out.
There's also the amusing/disturbing story of the housing authority board member who had been serving for years although there's no record of her appointment. That places into question the validity of dozens of votes she cast on various resolutions.
Sometimes it's all about politics, such as the small mass transit agency that never provided mass transit but was formed to prevent a larger — and higher-taxing — mass transit district from moving into parts of southwest Champaign. The maneuver worked for several years, but it's about to end. During the summer members of the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District voted themselves out of business.
Finally Gov. Pat Quinn is unhappy that the Legislature hasn't settled on a pension reform plan so he's vetoed their pay. This is a politically popular move, but it is sure to bite Quinn in the rear end next year — an election year — when he tries to get a budget, or anything else for that matter, through the Legislature.
So, as bad as things are this year in politics and government, they're going to get worse next year.
Need proof? Turn on the TV and watch the attack ads hitting first-year Congressman Rodney Davis. Those ads started eight months before the primary election. Davis, meanwhile, has collected more than $850,000 in six months to help blunt the attacks.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.