Illinois is No. 1 in a dubious category
Don't get your hopes up for decreasing the number of local government units in Illinois.
Illinois is last or near the bottom in a number of different metrics — public pension funding and quality of its bond ratings, to name just two.
But it's No. 1 in another important category, and that ranking helps to explain why the Land of Lincoln is a bottom dweller.
A finding by the U.S. Census indicates — and all taxpayers should prepare to cringe — that our state has the most units of local government in the nation. Pennsylvania ranks No. 2, but it's miles behind.
Illinois has 6,968 units of local government — counties, municipalities, townships, special districts and school districts — compared with 4,905 for Pennsylvania.
We're not the only state with too much government that is way too expensive. Texas has 4,856 units of government and California, 4,350.
This isn't the way it has to be. There are 10 states with 542 or fewer units of local government.
A limited number of local units of government does not automatically mean efficient and honest government. The District of Columbia has just two units, and it's historically been an absolute mess of corruption, incompetence and waste. But the fewer the units of governments citizens have to keep track of, the easier it is for voters to hold them accountable.
Why so much local government in Illinois? Voters continue to create new units, like library or tax-increment-finance districts, but many are holdovers from a bygone day. They are testimonials to the eternal truth that once government creates something, no matter how useless it becomes, it will live forever.
Exhibit A for the concept is township government, which most people know nothing about. Illinois has 102 counties and within those 102 counties are 1,400 units of township government, including 30 in Champaign County alone.
DuPage County Chairman Daniel Cronin has drawn considerable attention for trying to consolidate his county's 400-plus units of government, 45 of which provide mosquito-abatement services.
It would appear to be plain common sense to see how to do as much or more by spending less on fewer units of government. But the elected officials and employees whose livelihoods depend on their continuation vehemently resist change.
State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, last year tried without success to pass legislation establishing an eight-member commission with the authority to abolish local units of government.
Stirring up a hornet's nest of opposition, it never had a chance.
The Legislature subsequently created an advisory commission, headed by state Rep. Jack Franks, to explore the consolidation of local units of government and merge services.
"People can't follow them, no matter how hard they try, and as a result there is very little oversight," said Franks, who appears to be serious about bringing about a change.
But the lack of enthusiasm among state legislators for this issue is undeniable. The law establishing the Franks commission was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in August 2011 and the panel was required to submit its report by Dec. 31.
But somehow legislative leaders never got around to appointing commission members for months, and the commission didn't hold its first meeting until February 2012. Because of that delay, Franks said he's been forced to ask that the report deadline be moved back until September 2013.
Why is there such reluctance to pursue reorganization that could produce tremendous savings at a time when local governments are strapped for cash?
It's partly inertia. But it's largely because politicians run many of these local units of government, and they apply pressure on legislators to protect the status quo.
Legislators of both parties, always concerned about keeping friends and getting re-elected, find it easier to let sleeping dogs lie and do nothing.
It would be nice to think that's going to change, that Illinois is so broke sensible people in positions of power recognize the practices of 1912 need to be brought up to the speed of 2012. But change comes hard in Illinois, a state where politics almost always trumps policy.