More to love: Illinois’ affinity for municipal government

September 12, 2012

Caroline O'Donovan

“Welfare state.” “Caretaker government.” “Nanny state.” In his autobiography, Mitt Romney writes that in an ideal government  we would “count on our leaders to represent the best interests of the people, not to count noses.” In American political discourse, we talk about too much government all the time, but what about too many governments?

At 6,968, Illinois has more independent governing bodies than any other state in America. It’s closest competitor is Pennsylvania, with a mere 4,905. There are a number of moments in Illinois’ constitutional history that have allowed this situation to develop, says Kent Redfield of the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Consider that during the years in which more and more suburbs were popping up, it made sense to create more and more individual governments. They made it easier for these new communities to do things like found libraries and build courthouses. Illinois is also a state with townships, smaller political jurisdictions within counties that the Better Government Association recently called “relics from the horse-and-buggy era.” During the presidency of Richard Nixon, however, a revenue sharing program was initiated in which independent townships received federal dollars, providing incentive to create more and more small governments.

In other words, an excess of small governing bodies could be a root to Illinois’ much maligned political history.

Today, though, these bodies are broken down into increasingly tiny fractions - school districts, park districts, water reclamation districts, conservation districts, and even specifics like Mosquito Abatement districts. Each of these nearly 7,000 bodies is governed by a board of some sort, which determines what should be done with the tax revenue they receive. “Every time you've got a unit of local government,” Redfield says, “you've got people who are controlling budgets and controlling jobs.“ However infinitesimal that power may be, if it can be corrupted, it will be. In other words, an excess of small governing bodies could be a root to Illinois’ much maligned political history. “Illinois political culture is about jobs and power and control,” Redfield reminds us.

Some citizens have already begun to take matters into their own hands. Sangamon County has its own Citizens’ Efficiency Committee (of which Prof. Redfield is a member). Their goal is to reduce overlap and increase the county government’s efficacy in hopes of saving money. With most governments currently in a state of financial crisis, Prof. Redfield says many are warming to the idea of consolidating governments, but that despite the enthusiasm a lack of funds tends to make researching programs for streamlining governments practically impossible. Not to mention the potential for opposition: combine two rural school districts, and a town loses its beloved football team. Voters generally don’t like to see services decrease, and as Babak Armajani writes cogently in Governing magazine, it’s much more complicated to actually save money through consolidation than it sounds.

The number of independent municipal governments per capita is never going to be a sticking point for voters and is probably never going to capture the attention of major media outlets. Still, it seems a safe bet that at best they are wasting taxpayer dollars, and also most likely adding to the culture of power grabbing and money grubbing in Illinois’ government. Whether or not that will change anytime soon remains to be seen. Prof. Kent Redfield joins The Morning Shift on Wednesday to explain how we came to love government so much, and to weigh in on whether or not it’s eroding our state.