Veto override a partial solution

Veto override a partial solution

The 'transparency' bill is an excellent idea in principle, but there's a better method that doesn't require legislation.

Legislators, who returned to Springfield this week for the fall veto session, will most certainly override Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto of House Bill 3649, a good-government measure proponents assert will enhance the public's understanding of Illinois' sorry financial status.

In essence, the bill would show how much the state owes in unpaid invoices — at the department level. At the moment, taxpayers only know precisely how much the state owes vendors based on invoices at the comptroller's office — plus, an estimate of invoices at each state department under the governor's control.

One commentator, Charles Wheeler, said "overriding this veto ought to be a no-brainer for lawmakers looking to do taxpayers a real service." Wheeler, the director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, has a good handle on the substance — but in our view misses the mark on the motives.

State legislators only rarely do the right thing for the right reason. They sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason, and that may be the case here.

This legislation reeks of politics, Democrats sticking it to Republican Rauner. The party of Chicago House Speaker Michael Madigan, which controlled the governor's mansion from 2003 to 2015, never raised the issue during that time — a time when Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn routinely held back invoices. Suddenly, it's become a top legislative priority.

The legislation would require each state agency to report its liabilities monthly to the comptroller's office along with estimates of accrued interest penalties. They currently report on an annual basis, prompting new Comptroller Susana Mendoza to complain that the delay in reporting makes it impossible to know what the state's true obligations are.

Of course, this would not be a problem if legislators didn't routinely spend far more money than the state takes in. But a lot of problems wouldn't exist if legislators acted in a responsible manner.

On its face, this measure makes sense, something even Rauner acknowledged in his veto message when he wrote "the inclination to provide more transparency about the state of our finances is a good one."

Nonetheless, he blocked the legislation, asserting that "asymmetries in technology and variances in the input and calculation of the required information" will be "highly burdensome for agencies and will require an allocation of significant additional resources to reporting compliance."

Whatever the merits of the claim, few outside the governor's office put much stock in Rauner's words. They suggest that, for political reasons, he wants to hide what's really hard to hide — the amount of the state's unpaid bills. They're currently $15 billion-plus, and when numbers are that big, people understand the circumstances are dire.

Nonetheless, Rauner is taking regular public beatings as a foe of transparency for purely venal reasons.

Since it's unclear who has the better argument, we'll follow our instincts and go with transparency.

If the mandate really is as burdensome as Rauner claims, Democrats can repeal H.B. 3649 when a Democrat holds the governor's office.

Having embraced the override, it's important to note that former Comptroller Leslie Munger makes some compelling points about potential problems posed by this legislation and suggests a solution that doesn't require a lot of extra work.

Citing the "burdensome paperwork" that overwhelms the executive branch, Munger, now deputy governor, said the real problem lies in an "antiquated technology infrastructure" that requires "manual entry of payment vouchers because our system cannot accept vouchers via email."

A technology upgrade, one Munger initiated during her two years as comptroller, would "reduce cost and improve transparency of spending throughout state government."

Munger recalls that in 2015 the state purchased "software for a new statewide enterprise resource planning system" that will allow vouchers to be submitted electronically and save taxpayers "hundreds of millions annually."

Once fully implemented, Munger said, "everyone — including the comptroller — will have visibility to all the bills held at all agencies with the click on the computer."

Munger suggests Mendoza should "reinstate the funding" for the new computer system and solve multiple difficult problems at once.

That, to borrow commentator Wheeler's words, also is a "no-brainer."

At least, it is if our public officials are serious about doing, again borrowing Wheeler's words, "taxpayers a real service."

Mendoza, who's immensely likable but still a hard-nosed Chicago Democrat, insists she's above partisanship. Embracing Munger's suggestion would add substantial credibility to that self-promoting claim.

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