Is Obama Right– Do We Need More Government?

July/30/2014 5:38AM
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Obama hails from Illinois, the land of government. No other state can compare with Illinois when it comes to the various layers of government.

Is it no coincidence that Illinois is going broke? With all the help we Illinois taxpayers get from our various governments one might think we would be in good shape.

So to you Mr. President, I say, don’t make the rest of the country into your home state. It just doesn’t work.

Here’s an article by Peter Creticos that documents how Illinois became number one in the nation in the depth and breadth of government.

A true love story: the Illinois government glut

Peter Creticos
Jul 22, 2014 507 0

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Illinois government tax

More bodies of Illinois government than any other state — by a long shot

Illinoisans are in love with government – lots and lots of governments. So many governments – more than 8,400 – that not even rabbits can keep up. Lay on top of this how much Illinoisans love elections, and we are probably the most represented people on the face of the planet. This is especially true in the Chicago metropolitan area, which accounts for 1,723 units of government. It is not quite to the point that we can describe the number of elected officials in the metro area by the square foot, but it seems that we are getting close.

So Illinois is a paragon of democracy? Well not quite. The proof? If you are a Chicagoan, name every position and person who you elect to the city council, the Illinois House and Senate, Congress, the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Cook County-wide offices, the Board of Review, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. If you are in the suburbs, add to this list your school board or boards, the community college board, the library board, the park district board, the township, and maybe one or two other special districts. When you have a problem, whom do you call?

A simple map by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning drives home the point. It uses Cook County as the example, but this is not about Cook County – the rest of Illinois is just as chopped up.

Illinois governments

The colored or shaded areas are municipalities or unincorporated Cook County respectively. The lines are those of all other taxing districts.

You see that Chicago looks really clean – which makes sense since the Chicago Public Schools, the City Colleges of Chicago and the Park District, while legally independent bodies, are run by mayoral appointees and the boundaries are the same as the City.

Most other municipalities are chopped into several special units of government. Hoffman Estates in the northwest corner of Cook County is one example. It straddles four townships and is divided among several local governments. Annexations and a high concentration of forest preserves contribute its overall amoeba-like shape. But, the more telling characteristic is that many lines crisscross the municipality.

The problem of overlapping government is not confined to communities like Hoffman Estates. Oak Park looks pretty clean. But, unlike Chicago, there are five units of elected government that share exactly the same boundaries. These include the village, the township, the library board, the park board, and elementary school board. The same is true for neighboring River Forest is like Oak Park. As it happens, the same high school district serves both communities. To be fair, River Forest, Oak Park, and Hoffman Estates work well, but the issue is whether they can work better if they were not saddled with jurisdictional babel.

This problem is not the result of a plot driven by machine politics. It actually dates back to the 19th Century. From 1870 to 1970, Illinois was governed by a constitution that put severe restrictions on local public debt. But, Illinoisans are a creative bunch, and the workaround was to create new local governments to accomplish what a single unit of government could not. We are living with a legacy that some people now try to rationalize by arguing that this enables voters to stay close to their elected officials. What really happens is that many public officials are able to stay anonymous and essentially unaccountable because they get lost in the background noise.

Having lots of governments is also expensive – very expensive. Imagine that you are in charge of a business and you want to move it to Illinois. Then imagine trying to figure out the cost of doing business and how it may vary just within a single municipality. Layer in special taxing districts – a favorite in Cook County – and it is possible that an answer to that question may change by few yards here or there. This is great for real estate lawyers, but not so good for economic development.

These many layers of governments also create huge costs for taxpayers. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently completed a study of city productivity across the U.S., Germany, Mexico, Spain and the United Kingdom. It found that larger cities are more productive than smaller ones – doubling the size of the city is associated with an increase by two to five percent in productivity. Productivity appears better for smaller cities when they are near larger cities. On the other hand, fragmented governance is costly. The OECD found that “for a given population size, a metropolitan area with twice the number of municipalities is associated with around six percent lower productivity.” This is a cost that no metropolitan area can afford. This is especially so for Illinois metro areas that are struggling to recover from the recession – of 2001.

Consolidations are clearly needed – not only among special units of government and school districts, but even municipalities. The longer that we cling to the current structure, the harder it will be to overcome institutional barriers to maintaining the state’s economic competitiveness and for delivering critical services to its residents.  At the same time, processes for forming new relationships across boundaries are often difficult and contentious and may create winners and losers. So it will take significant political courage and must involve all of civic leadership.

It is possible to legislate change, but that will not truly resolve the inevitable conflicts. The more likely pathway is to establish legal and financial incentives that reward consolidations. These may come in the form of additional financial aid, expanded authority, or tax relief. Voters can help propel change by demanding that candidates for office to more specialized units of government justify the existence of these units. The big picture issue is whether special districts and financially unsustainable governments should be standalone operations or whether they should be part of a comprehensive set of coordinated and complementary services provided by comprehensive municipal governments

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