The Times

No legislation without 'price tags'

Monday, July 26, 2010

Illinois is floundering in a sea of red ink, and leaders of a state think tank now believe mandating "price tags" on spending or taxation legislation would be a good start in any reform of state budgeting practices.

State lawmakers pass bill after bill in Springfield, often without releasing detailed information on the financial toll each would have on the already bloated state budget.
A new report from the Illinois Policy Institute details the problems with the state's "fiscal note" process — meant to spell out the budgetary impact of bills — and also offers reforms.

State Sen. Gary Dahl, R-Granville, would welcome the IPI suggestions to make the state's fiscal note process a more meaningful tool to highlight the impact legislation has on Illinois' finances.

Dahl believes the fiscal notes often fail to provide accurate estimates.
Dahl thinks, as a result, it's often difficult, if not impossible, for legislators and the public to determine what a bill's true cost will be.

A June 2010 analysis by the institute of 545 bills on the governor's desk found that 16 — or 3 percent — had fiscal notes attached. Many of those with notes gave only a bare summary of the potential cost, leaving out key details.
The Institute's review agrees with Dahl's assessment that fiscal notes lack vital information about how they were formulated and how the new spending or taxation being proposed would affect state citizens long-term. Also they're usually crafted by state agencies that may have an interest in determining a bill's fate.

The IPI said public tracking and accountability of the notes is virtually nonexistent. These new reforms would require a more in-depth fiscal note be applied to any bill during the legislative process that has an economic impact to the state.

At a Statehouse news conference Wednesday, Institute officials proposed a more open, effective and accurate fiscal note process as part of broader efforts to reform the state's budgeting practices. The Institute's plan calls for:
Price tags for every bill involving spending or taxation, with a minimum five-year forecast of financial impact included in each note.

Notes chiefly authored by an independent, neutral source that have an explanation of how the cost estimates were developed.

An Internet tracking system for fiscal notes that is easily searchable by the public.

Institute officials said they found frequent examples of bills being passed with no fiscal notes attached at all, such as ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 2005 expansion of the All Kids health insurance program and this year's sales tax holiday on school supplies. Both have price tags in the tens of millions of dollars, but this information wasn't available in a fiscal note as legislators quickly passed them.

State Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, said legislators already get a private "staff analysis" of potential fiscal cost estimates and/or effect proposed legislation might have on the budget. "So it wouldn't be difficult to make those numbers and other information available to the public — I have no problem with that," he said.

State Rep. Careen Gordon, R-Morris, told The Times she also would welcome such transparency with reforms in the legislation procedures.