Over the past weeks, there have been several items in Wednesday Journal relating to the work of the Illinois General Assembly and those of us who represent Oak Park and River Forest in Springfield. Some were written while our work was still in progress, and others may have been written without all of the facts at hand. Let me try to set the record straight on reform, the state budget and local issues.
First, my colleagues and I heard the message loud and clear: “reform before tax increases.” In the last year, the General Assembly enacted landmark reform legislation that fundamentally changes the way government, politics and campaigns will behave in Illinois. Let me recount the highlights.
We started the year by impeaching, convicting and removing Rod Blagojevich from office. All can agree that ending the Blagojevich era was a necessary precursor to real reform.
We enacted an overhaul of the Freedom of Information Act to ensure greater transparency and accountability in government. The final bill – supported by the attorney general, the Illinois Reform Commission and the Illinois Press Association – will have the most immediate impact on government behavior in Illinois. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
We completely restructured the way state government procures goods and services to ensure the contracts are awarded to the lowest responsible bidder, not to political insiders and campaign contributors. While “procurement reforms” are too boring for media coverage, they strike at the heart of the Ryan-Blagojevich-era “culture of corruption,” ensure independence in awarding contracts and protect taxpayers frustrated by the presumption that we are all paying an implicit “corruption tax.”
We banned state contractors from contributing money to the campaign funds of the officeholders who awarded the contracts, and for the first time in Illinois history, we limited the amount of money that can be contributed to political campaigns. We also responded to concerns that a handful of political leaders have undue influence by limiting the amount of money that can be transferred among political campaigns. Even our critics admit that this is the most significant campaign finance overhaul in Illinois history.
We enacted sweeping reforms to eradicate corruption at the state’s retirement boards, which had been looted by Blagojevich and Ryan insiders Tony Rezko and Stuart Levine. These reforms removed Blagojevich’s pension board appointees, banned gifts to board members from people seeking business or official action, and imposed unprecedented conflict-of-interest provisions.
We enacted new punishments for politicians who breach the public trust, requiring forfeiture of ill-gotten gains.
We created a Senate Redistricting Committee to ensure that our next effort at redistricting is fair, consistent with federal law and in the best interest of the people of Illinois.
We rewrote the Senate rules to devolve power from the legislative leaders and to empower rank-and file legislators to control their own legislative initiatives.
Second, we have heard clearly the call to be responsible in enacting a state budget. Some folks want us to cut waste and eliminate marginal programs. Others believe we need to increase taxes to ensure that good programs can continue. In the end, we will need to both cut government spending where we can and raise new revenue to deal, not only with a precipitous decline in state revenues due to the economy, but also with a structural deficit that has plagued us for decades.
The Senate did vote to approve an increase in the income tax rate, coupled with property tax relief, and I voted in favor of it. Even with the tax increase, however, we will still see cuts in state government totaling more than $3 billion – a decline of more than 10 percent. Hopefully, we will find the balance required to be prudent stewards of scarce taxpayer resources, and protect the social services so vital to Oak Park and River Forest.
Third, even as we wrestle with such broad topics, we have been able to deal with other issues critical to local residents. For instance, after more than a year of work, I was able to pass an overhaul of the elevator safety laws that will protect area residents and spare them tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary upgrades.
Similarly, we continue to fight for legal recognition of civil unions for our lesbian and gay citizens. I am the chief co-sponsor of the measure, and I have been working to persuade some of my reluctant colleagues to support the bill. I’m confident that quiet diplomacy and dogged leadership will be more effective than confrontational and counter-productive strategies to achieve recognition of a fundamental human right through passage of a comprehensive civil unions bill.
Finally, a couple of letter writers told me to do a better job of updating voters on my legislative matters, even as one complained that so many letters in the paper made it seem like election season. Proves you can’t please everyone. I will do my best to keep you informed without trying your patience.
If you need more, please visit my Web site at www.donharmon.org. You can see all of the legislation I’m sponsoring this session, some of the most notable legislative measures I’ve sponsored in past sessions, and my phone number (848-2002) and e-mail address (email@example.com) so that you can contact me.
I’m proud of my legislative record and my service to our district. Whether you agree with me or not, you have every right to let me know what you think, and I hope you will.
Don Harmon is an Illinois state senator, 39th District, who lives in Oak Park.