Reboot Illinois - April 27, 2015 | Original story

by Madeleine Doubek

Something is wrong in Illinois when you have a fiscal crisis you go a long way toward solving by “sweeping” $1.3 billion out of nearly 800 different state funds, seemingly in the time it takes to click your heels together and say, “Sweep away.”

That’s just about what happened at the end of March, minus the heel clicking. Then, after lawmakers flipped out when they thought they’d solved their immediate crisis only to find out key programs for the poor, sick and disabled were enduring $26 million in cuts, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget office suggested another sweep might ease the pain.

I don’t know about you, but on those rare days when I sweep at my house, I’m lucky to find a penny, not millions or billions. I knew we had a bunch of funds from specialty license plates and for charitable causes, but I’d never paid much attention, so I did some asking.

Illinois has nearly 800 different funds. They include the general revenue fund, the big one we all tend to focus on this time of year. They also include some others like a road fund and a motor fuel fund. And then there are, quite literally, hundreds of others like: Illinois State Police Memorial Park, Illinois Veterans Rehabilitation, Illinois Police K-9 Memorial, State Boating Act, State Parks, Wildlife & Fish, Salmon, Military Affairs Trust, Lobbyist Registration Administration and Agriculture Premium.

Then there’s the Federal Mass Transit Trust, Share the Road, National Flood Insurance Program, Land Reclamation, Federal Energy, Cycle Rider Safety Training and Farmers Market Tech Improvement.

I randomly just picked a few spots from a column of 792 sent to me by Comptroller Leslie Munger’s office. Omitting the general revenue fund, the biggie that funds state operations each year, all these funds late last week had $9.67 billion in them.

That’s a whole lot of our money we never hear much about.  The good news? Last week, the Illinois Senate approved a bill, SB1404, that attempts to make sure these funds get audited every year. Another, SB 1405, seeks to see if some of these funds can be consolidated.

The bills probably aren’t perfect. I think it’s a bit rich that they create yet another special board to work on shrinking the number of funds over the next several years. And it sounds like the bills keep the audits exempt from FOIA disclosure. Isn’t the problem here that the funds are managed in the dark? Well, yes.

Still, state Sen. Linda Holmes, an Aurora Democrat who sponsored the bills, said it’s a start at making the funds “a little more manageable and … a little more transparent for everybody.”

“Illinois has more funds than any other state by far, which makes it incredibly difficult to see how state money is spent,” Munger said in a release. “There is no reason to have a Fish and Wildlife Fund and a separate Salmon Fund. Isn’t salmon a fish?”

While we collectively roll our eyes at the silliness, it’s really not that funny. Several of the funds were created with the promise they would be dedicated and protected from the sweeping that just occurred and has previously under Democratic governors. What we have here is a huge amount of public money being handled with very little oversight.

State Rep. Scott Drury, a Highwood Democrat, has referred to the funds as Illinois’ other budget. That other budget, he said, “doesn’t jive with transparent government which is something I’m adamant about achieving.”

David Merriman, of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, along with two colleagues studied the special funds and reported on them four years ago, suggesting certain groups of them be added to the bigger budget discussions that occur more publicly each year.

Illinois has more funds than many states, he said, but “what we think is more disturbing in Illinois is, not the number of them, but the variance and the way funds are moved around in them.”

State Rep. Bob Pritchard, a Sycamore Republican who will carry the bill in the House, said, “I just can’t imagine the accounting nightmare involved in trying to keep track of all these. It just introduces the opportunity for error.”

Nearly 800 funds with more than $9.67 billion in them. That’s some real money of ours that should come out of the shadows.

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