In a political climate where everyone has an agenda and bills run for hundreds of pages, citizens need a new way to access the facts
Illinoisans shouldn’t need a law or an accounting degree to understand what their own government is doing with their money. Unfortunately, that’s what it’s come to.
The ongoing debate over Illinois’ education funding and the amended Senate Bill 1 amplified my awareness of this. When I’ve called legislators to verify an objective number or fact in the bill — the actual amount of the Chicago block grant, for example — I’ve heard different things from different people. When I’ve looked at reports from outside policy sources who claim to be independent, I’ve found many of their analyses to be slanted towards a particular agenda, or that they were outright in favor or not in favor of the bill.
My solution had always been to consult and cite the actual bill, untainted by anyone else’s bias. Yet sifting through the legal jargon to find the most important details in just one bill — let alone the thousands of bills that pass through the General Assembly each session — is as frustrating as attempting to build a sandcastle using chopsticks.
Just look at a paragraph from the enrolled Senate Bill 1, the version which passed the Illinois General Assembly and made it to the governor’s office, which totals 482 pages. The paragraph, from pages 349-350, discusses the employer normal cost of teachers’ pensions, or what has been referred to as the teacher pension pick-up:
“If at any time the responsibility for funding the employer normal cost of teacher pensions is assigned to school districts, then that amount certified by the Teachers’ Retirement System of the State of Illinois to be paid by the Organizational Unit for the preceding school year shall be added to the benefit investment. For any fiscal year in which a school district organized under Article 34 of this Code is responsible for paying the employer normal cost of teacher pensions, then that amount of its employer normal cost plus the amount for retiree health insurance as certified by the Public School Teachers’ Pension and Retirement Fund of Chicago to be paid by the school district for the preceding school year that is statutorily required to cover employer normal costs and the amount for retiree health insurance shall be added to the 30 percent specified in this subparagraph.”
While it’s part of my job to figure out whatever that means without a law degree, I doubt many Illinoisans working multiple jobs to support their families have time to do the same. Let’s not forget that Senate Bill 1 was tied into the state’s multi-bill budget package, so the fun reading doesn’t end there by any means.
In this country, it shouldn’t be quicker and easier to order a meal at a fast-food restaurant than it is to see and understand what our government is doing. We need simplified, shorter bills that are written in the common vernacular rather than legal language — and I would advocate to include only one item per bill, and to not allow for amendments.
As idealistic as it sounds, consider what it could accomplish. For Illinois specifically, the amount of bills and the lack of amendments would force legislators to vote on each bill quickly and make new ones, incorporating things they may have liked from another bill that failed. More time would be spent on negotiations and less time passing ceremonial proclamations — or even, heaven forbid, jumping on soapboxes or campaigning for the next election.
Most importantly, the one-item requirement would allow for increased transparency. If the legislators wanted to add “pork” legislation, they would have to make a separate bill that would be exposed to the public and the opposing party for judgment.
Imagine if all of these changes Gov. Bruce Rauner said he made to Senate Bill 1 were divided into separate, shorter bills with succinct descriptions as to what each one would actually do:
• Maintains a per-district hold harmless until the 2020-2021 school year, and then moves to a per-pupil hold harmless based on a three-year rolling average of enrollment.
• Removes the minimum funding requirement. While the governor is committed to ensuring that the legislature satisfies its duty to fund schools, the proposed trigger of one percent of the overall adequacy target plus $93 million artificially inflates the minimum funding number and jeopardizes Tier II funding.
• Removes the Chicago block grant from the funding formula.
• Removes both Chicago Public Schools pension considerations from the formula: the normal cost pick-up and the unfunded liability deduction.
• Reintegrates the normal cost pick-up for Chicago Public Schools into the Pension Code where it belongs, and finally begins to treat Chicago like all other districts with regards to the State’s relationship with its teachers’ pensions.
• Eliminates the PTELL and TIF equalized assessed value subsidies that allow districts to continue under-reporting property wealth.
• Removes the escalators throughout the bill that automatically increase costs.
• Retains the floor for the regionalization factor, for the purposes of equity, and adds a cap, for the purposes of adequacy.
Which would be easier to digest?
The public would benefit if each bill was shorter as well. People could pull out their phones and read one on their morning train commute, or on their lunch break at work. The bills could be quickly translated into different languages so immigrants looking to obtain their citizenship can begin learning about the laws. More people may actually call their legislators’ offices and get involved in politics because they would know the truth for themselves, rather than running around in circles trying to verify what the talking heads said.
Admittedly, how this change could be accomplished will require much more deliberation on my part, but nothing is impossible. Any way to make legislation more accessible to the average Illinoisan would be welcome — not to mention, something that could be replicated across the nation.
There’s been much talk of bringing long-term reforms to the state of Illinois. Any citizen or politician brave enough to advocate for something like this would actually begin to make that a reality.
Bonus points if they can find much, much cheaper options than going to law or graduate school.