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Lawmakers propose more transparency on town debt

Published: Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 10:01 a.m. CST

(MCT) — Illinois House Republicans want more transparency and research after revelations of sky-high debt in some suburbs, but their proposals stop short of pushing safeguards other states employ.

Calling it a first step in reform, Tom Cross, R-Oswego, and Rep. Ron Sandack, R-Downers Grove, said many taxpayers face ballooning property tax bills with little means to figure out why. That includes suburbs that for years have borrowed big while failing to save enough for pensions.

"People should know, and have a right to know, how much debt is out there," said Cross, House Republican leader.

The pair's legislation would boost the amount of local government data available online on debt and unfunded retiree costs. They also want to create a state panel — stocked with unpaid members appointed by state leaders — to review the taxing, spending and borrowing habits of the thousands of local governments in Illinois.

The proposals come after Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas has pushed for reporting of local debt and unfunded pension costs, and after Tribune investigations highlighted how taxpayers have been squeezed from Illinois rules that allow many towns to tax and borrow at will.

The vast majority of other states limit the riskiest type of borrowing or require voters directly approve it. But most metro Chicago residents live in places that have no limits and no direct voter input.

Cross and Sandack said they're not ready to restrict the power of local officials. But Sandack, a former Downers Grove mayor, said he found some of the Tribune's revelations of suburban debt "very alarming."

The legislators said the plan was modeled in part after a push by Texas' comptroller for more transparency. Comptroller Susan Combs told the Tribune she applauds the Illinois proposal but noted the Texas plan is meant to better arm voters who then often get a direct say in whether local officials borrow.

Combs said there would be "riots in the streets" if Texas were like Illinois and didn't let voters in many places decide whether their towns could borrow more.

"If you're slapping your forehead and saying, 'We just found out we owe $40 million and we can't do anything about it,' how is that helpful?"

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