Improved anti-corruption filing will help keep lawmakers in check
By Emily Miller
Emily is the BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @EJMill.
Having information about potential conflicts of interest held by public officials is vital to ensuring our government is accountable to taxpayers—not to private or personal interests.
But in Illinois, good government groups commonly refer to the current economic disclosure form lawmakers and other government officials are required to file as ”a waste of paper.”
Even though the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act has required elected officials and high-ranking government employees to file economic disclosure forms for over 40 years, the form is so vague and ineffective that 85% of those returning the form in Cook County filled in every question with the phrase “Not Applicable.”
That’s why the Better Government Association is backing a bill that will require Illinois lawmakers and other high-ranking state and county officials to file a revamped economic disclosure form designed to ferret out conflicts of interest.
SB3941, introduced by Senator Dan Kotowski (D-33) with support from Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, requires officials to report potential conflicts of interest by asking specific questions about assets, gifts, and debts. In addition, for the first time, officials will have to report outside sources of income and lobbyists who are family members or with whom they have close economic ties.
The legislation also lays the groundwork for the state to move toward an online filing system that will further improve transparency of potential conflicts of interest held by government officials.
Specifically, the legislation will require officials to report:
- Assets valued at more than $10,000
- Additional sources of income in excess of $2,500
- Debts over $5,000 incurred by or owed to the filer, other than those owed to a financial institution.
- Lobbyists with whom the filer has an economic relationship
- Family members of the filer, including a spouse, child, step-child, parent, step-parent or sibling, who are lobbyists registered with any unit of government in Illinois
- Gifts with a value of $500 or more
The BGA will be working hard alongside reform-minded lawmakers to pass SB3941 in January.
The BGA’s Policy & Government Affairs Coordinator, Emily Miller, shines a light on procurement cards, or p-cards, which are taxpayer-financed debit cards issued directly to government employees to make work-related purchases. P-cards are becoming increasingly pervasive and potentially problematic in Illinois government, and in connection with a recent BGA investigation, Miller offers in an Aug. 2 Daily Herald op-ed best practices for p-card usage:
By Emily Miller, BGA Policy & Government Affairs Coordinator
We all know about credit cards and debit cards. Now, meet the “p-card.”
In recent years, use of the p-card — a procurement card issued directly by government to employees to make work-related purchases — has exploded. Nationwide, p-card spending jumped to $17.7 billion in 2006, compared with only $3 billion in 1996, according to the latest data.
Basically, a p-card acts as a taxpayer-financed debit card. The p-card draws funds for purchases directly from designated bank accounts, which are backed by the tax revenues of a school district, suburb or other public body. Only permissible items can be bought with a p-card.
Although the federal bureaucracy is leading the way in p-card distribution, many local governments in Illinois — including Grayslake Elementary District 46, which the Daily Herald and Better Government Association reported Monday — are now issuing them to employees.
This growing popularity is forcing many government providers to rethink how p-cards are being managed.
According to the General Accountability Office, the independent federal watchdog agency, p-card waste, fraud and abuse often come as a result of inadequate program operating procedures and ineffective program oversight.
Common examples include making personal purchases, using the p-card for unauthorized buys such as alcohol or nonessential goods and services, “gold-plated” expenses, subsequent theft of purchased goods, and use of the p-card for goods or services that should be subject to a bidding process.
Without oversight, the waste of taxpayer dollars is virtually unavoidable. To avoid problems, here are some suggested best practices for governing bodies:
- Develop a comprehensive written p-card policy. This policy will outline what is and is not allowed and should also indicate who is allowed to hold a p-card. That list of employees should be limited to those who need to make purchases in the course of their daily job.
- Detail disciplinary action. Each government entity should have a written p-card oversight plan that outlines both oversight and disciplinary actions necessary to rectify any misuse.
- Limit p-card use. Permissible use of the p-card should be limited only to necessary government expenses under a certain dollar amount, though each public body should develop its own specific lists of permissible expenses based on its public duty.
- Improve communication. Cardholders should be made aware of the policy through an interactive training program that goes beyond just reading and signing the p-card policy.
- Finally, a mandatory and documented review by a supervisor or approving official, someone other than the cardholder, should occur for all purchases. Using a checklist, the supervisor or reviewing official should:
- Review an itemized invoice showing everything that was purchased and what was paid for each item.
- Ensure the purchase serves a legitimate government need specifically permitted in the p-card policy, not a personal or impermissible one.
- Ensure a transaction has not been split into segments to avoid maximum purchase amounts, or to get around the competitive bidding process.
- Monitor the items purchased to ensure no excessive or “gold plated” expenses were incurred.
- Verify that the items ordered were actually received by the public body.
- Promptly report and attempt to reconcile all financial discrepancies within a set timetable, and help to enforce disciplinary action where appropriate.
Without strong financial internal controls dictating both appropriate use and required oversight of the program, there is nothing to deter erroneous use of p-cards, or to promptly detect and eliminate misuse and abuse.
The Better Government Association’s policy guru, Emily Miller, talked with Outside the Loop’s Mike Stephen about BGA’s top legislative priorities for the current session—protecting the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and reforming township government.
- Southtown Star—Will lawmakers pay for tax hike? No way. “Voting in favor of the state’s largest income tax increase won’t make outgoing state Rep. Mike Carberry popular on his Oak Lawn block. But the vote was needed, he and other Southland Democrats said Wednesday, to avoid state insolvency.”
- Bloomington Pantagraph—Central Illinois debates income tax increases, “It was a debate taking place across Central Illinois on Wednesday after the General Assembly worked into the early morning to send Gov. Pat Quinn a controversial tax increase bill.”
- Daily Herald—West Chicago, Warrenville chambers merge, “The two chambers merged, effective Jan. 1, into the Western DuPage Chamber of Commerce. The new chamber will serve more than 400 members in the two communities.”
We’re taking a break, but we’ll be back Wednesday, Dec. 29.
Don’t worry– we’re still watching the headlines, and will bring you updates when we return.
- Politifact—Politifact’s lie of the year: “A government takeover of health care:” “ In the spring of 2009, a Republican strategist settled on a brilliant and powerful attack line for President Barack Obama’s ambitious plan to overhaul America’s health insurance system. Frank Luntz, a consultant famous for his phraseology, urged GOP leaders to call it a “government takeover.”
- Daily Herald—Tax watchdog (National Taxpayers United of Illinois): School, municipal pensions ‘ridiculous:’ “These people are getting millions for sitting on their fat (behinds),” Tobin said Thursday in describing the state’s “pension millionaires.” Tobin’s group is touring the state, releasing the names and pension earnings of recently retired teachers and municipal employees. Tobin believes the cost of funding all the state’s pensions is what is really driving Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers to push for an income tax increase.”
- State Journal-Register—State police make early retirement offer to senior troopers: “The union representing most Illinois State Police officers has agreed to an early retirement plan that could send more than 100 troopers into retirement, but officials hope it will result in more new troopers being hired.”
- Peoria Journal Star—Peoria officials point out they didn’t raise taxes: “City officials including Mayor Jim Ardis have instead expressed some of their frustrations with other taxing bodies in Peoria — namely Peoria Public Schools District 150 — for increasing its property tax rate while the city avoids similar hikes despite increasing political pressure to do so.”
- Southtown Star—Meeks says minority contracts should only go to blacks: “The word ‘minority’ from our standpoint should mean African-American. I don’t think women, Asians and Hispanics should be able to use that title,” he said. “That’s why our numbers cannot improve — because we use women, Asians and Hispanics who are not people of color, who are not people who have been discriminated against.”