With the announcement by Lisa Madigan that she will not seek re-election for attorney general of Illinois, candidates have come out of the woodwork to seek that office. But whomever voters choose for the position next year, he or she will have a unique opportunity to tell a truth to the residents of Illinois and take on a challenge that appears to have been dead and buried for decades.
Here is the truth: Almost all of the problems of Illinois are a result of poor governance and frequent questionable, self-serving decisions by elected officials.
The dysfunction that happens here may be the letter of the law, but it’s nowhere near acceptable. Think of these problems: Unbalanced budgets, pension spiking, illogical government salaries, and costly taxes and contracts. Too often, this type of activity is ignored or passively accepted. The new attorney general can not only shine a light on elected officials acting in their own interests instead of taxpayers, but send a message that it won’t be tolerated.
With all due respect to Attorney General Madigan, a reasonable knock on her tenure was that investigations and prosecutions of suspected wrongdoing were largely nonexistent. Madigan many times pointed to supposed statutory limits on her ability to pursue such cases, so she confined the focus of her tenure mostly on consumer protection and advocacy issues.
Protecting consumers and the victimized are undeniably laudable goals, but far from Illinois’ most pressing issues. The prosecutions of 34 Chicago aldermen, countless county officials and two governors validate that assertion.
The next attorney general should spend his or her capital and resources on fixing the in-house problems in Illinois government.
There is much that needs to be done.
On the first day in office, the new Illinois attorney general should immediately set up a dedicated hotline and online portals for taxpayers to speak — by name or anonymously — directly with the office about suspected corruption. This will make it known that investigations into possible government fraud, waste and overreach are happening, and that whistleblowers have a place to safely go.
The attorney general should also establish contact with all jurisdictions that have little or no legal oversight, and set up liaisons for those locales. Dishonest officials plague local governments in places like Dixon, Northern Illinois University, Harvey and Bloomington, just like in Chicago and Springfield. Local government bodies need help from the attorney general’s office.
Finally, the attorney general should assign more legal officers to ensure Freedom of Information Act requests are being addressed, processed and reviewed properly and in a timely manner. The attorney general is ultimately responsible for ensuring FOIA is strong in Illinois. Strengthening this system would send a clear message that elected officials answer to taxpayers, not vice versa.
Most reasonable Illinoisans would agree that the new attorney general can’t completely fix the state’s many woes. There are just too many problems and unprincipled actors, and it’s a more-than-fair sentiment to say that the level of dysfunction has prompted valid concerns about possible wrongdoing. Illinois will continue to degrade unless addressing those problems is the first priority.
An active attorney general can help create a new culture of how governmental business is conducted. A renewed battle against self-serving governance can end what is happening now and make the price for doing so too high to tempt any wavering public “servant.”
Anyone wanting to be the state’s next legal watchdog should stand up and grab this opportunity. Illinoisans now demand it, and look forward to the fight.