Ending conflict of interest

Ending conflict of interest

Gov. Bruce Rauner's order on the property-tax appeal process is both good government and good politics.

There's going to be a lot of posturing and posing over public policy in Illinois between today and the November general election, particularly as it relates to the governor's race.

The speculation in Springfield already is that when the Democratic-controlled General Assembly returns to work, it will do nothing that could even conceivably be of political benefit to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, even if it would simultaneously benefit the public.

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan plays hardball, but never so hard as in an election year, and he's determined to defeat a political foe, like Rauner, who's made his life more difficult.

But Rauner, as the state's chief executive, has his own cards to play. He has been hinting for months that he's not happy about property taxes and politically connected lawyers who make a healthy living by filing property-tax appeals.

Last week, he indicated that he again intends to seek legislation addressing sky-high property taxes and promised to use his own authority to do something about legislators/lawyers who handle property-tax appeals.

Attending a Thursday meeting in Country Club Hills, Rauner listened as property owners complained about high property taxes and then pledged to issue an executive order barring legislators/lawyers from doing business before the Illinois Property Tax Appeals Board. On Friday, he issued the order.

"We have a deeply flawed and overly complicated property-tax system that recent investigations have shown results in inequitable, disproportionately high property-tax burdens on low-income residents — not to mention our property taxes overall are simply too high. For any legislator to profit from this system undercuts the public's faith that they are in office to do what's best for their constituents," he said. "Legislators who make money representing clients who are appealing their property-tax assessments have little incentive to do what's right when it comes to property-tax reform."

It remains unclear to what extent Rauner can impinge on the business interests of legislators/lawyers. But legislators are barred from handing cases before the Illinois Court of Claims and the Workers' Compensation Commission. He indicated his executive order would broaden existing prohibitions.

Those who follow Illinois politics knows that the property-assessment process in Chicago is a disaster. Recent reporting by the Chicago Tribune went into considerable details revealing the extent to which Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios' office mishandles the situation.

It's hard to accept that the broad scale of assessment malpractice in Berros' office is an accident. Since the business of appealing assessments enriches connected lawyers and results in major campaign contributions to Berrios, the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, it's just as likely that what's happening is by design.

Berrios is running for re-election in the March 20 primary, and Democratic Party regulars are backing him to the hilt. But independent Democrats have raised serious questions about his fitness for office and about who is profiting from the property-tax-appeal enterprise.

The law firm that oversees the biggest and most profitable appeal business is run by Madigan, who is chairman of the state Democratic Party. He and Berrios, for a variety of reasons, are thick as thieves.

So it's not only good policy for Rauner to challenge the property-tax status quo in Cook County, but good politics as well.

Madigan, of course, isn't the only legislator/lawyer to feed at the trough of property-tax appeals. So, too, do Senate President John Cullerton and House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.

The theory behind Rauner's proposed executive order, aside from its political benefit, is that legislators/lawyers who profit from the status quo won't be inclined to fix it. Stripping them of the right to appeal property-tax assessments eliminates the existing conflict of interest in addressing an issue that Democrats and Republicans alike recognize as a problem.

Of course, politics as practiced in Chicago has shown repeatedly over the years that it's beyond reform. Further, the problem posed by property taxes statewide has shown itself to be intractable.

So nothing may ultimately come of this, except accusations that Rauner, by exploiting this issue, is engaged in a publicity stunt. So what if he is?

At a minimum, the people of Cook County need to be exposed to more coverage about how their property-tax-assessment process is being manipulated by the powers that be to benefit the powers that be. If they are, they'll shake up the assessor's office on primary day.

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