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Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010 11:39 am

Don’t just stand there, create a commission

State research panels obstructed by vacancies

Many of Illinois’ 310-plus state commissions and task forces are rendered ineffective by vacancies and the state’s often lax response to their recommendations.

When Illinois faces a problem or controversy, the solution is often to create a commission, task force or panel to study the issue. But many of the state’s numerous panels have multiple vacancies or no members at all, and the recommendations made by these panels are sometimes ignored for political reasons.

“There is a problem, it is a difficult problem, and the response is to ‘punt’ things to a commission,” says Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “Very often, the hope is that by the time the commission reports back, either the spotlight’s off the issue, you’ve thought of some other way to deal with it, or you’ve developed some political capital to resolve it. It’s kind of a delay mechanism in a lot of ways.”

Of the 310 panels listed at the state Web site Appointments.Illinois.gov, 205 have at least one vacancy, though most have multiple vacancies that are supposed to be filled by the governor and legislative leaders.

One example is the Taxpayers Sunshine Commission, created by Quinn through an executive order. That panel was supposed to review programs under the executive branch and recommend possibilities for consolidation or elimination by November 2009.

At least 56 state panels either have no members at all or too few members to function. Among them is the State Banking Board of Illinois, set up to provide advice on regulation and bank policies – a service that could have come in handy when banks around the state were folding due to bad investments and poor regulation. Fifteen of the 17 seats on that panel sat empty while 23 banks in Illinois failed between October 2008 and January 2010.

“That’s just lame, Canary says. “When a commission is set up and nobody is appointed until the public spotlight shines on it, it really often is the case of someone or the media is kicking and screaming about it, and then [lawmakers] try to make the problem disappear.”

Even when panels are fully staffed, their recommendations aren’t always put into effect. Tasked with researching ways to rid Illinois of public corruption, the Illinois Reform Commission made numerous recommendations in their final report. However, efforts to overhaul the state’s winner-take-all system of redistricting met resistance from legislators whose reelection depends on gerrymandering, and proposals to significantly reform campaign finance laws were weakened to allow unlimited donations to candidates from legislative and party leaders.

“I think that it does kind of underscore one of the difficulties of public attention in a society where mainstream media are shrinking, that if there is a public clamor about an issue, the response is ‘We’re going to create a commission to really study and look at this,’ then there’s no follow-up.”

Some panels have disbanded after delivering a final report, as in the case of the Reform Commission. Many more, however, continue to exist with no impact on the issues they were created to address.

“I suppose if all the panels were functional and active, you’d see a number of conflicting things put into place,” Canary says. “It’s important to note that just because a commission recommends something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best idea in the world. I think we have to take it with a grain of salt.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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