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Causes and Cures

Democracy gives Illinois too much of a bad thing

Illinois Times

November 24, 1978

Another wonk’s lament. What is the appropriate collective noun for airport authorities and fire protection districts and sanitary districts? Ah, I’ve got it—"confusion.” Illinois is plagued by a confusion of local governments. Special districts to do this or that, more than one hundred counties that are themselves usually divided into townships, each with its own trustees—it’s illogical, inefficient, and incoherent. Local governments remain popular however with the people who run them; if you’re a township trustee, your two-man road crew thinks you’re God. They also are popular with most voters, who would rather govern themselves badly than be governed well by people they don't run into at the Walmart.


When I wrote this they were talking about consolidating some of these mini-governments. They are talking about still, forty years later. It’s like watching your grandpa trying to rid his house of cockroaches with a flyswatter, one at a time.


Government is a subject that is only rarely discussed in political campaigns these days, so I and my fellow citizens of the 50th legislative district were doubly surprised to hear it not merely discussed but discussed intelligently by Springfield's incumbent Democratic representative Doug Kane. Like everyone else this fall. Kane talked a lot about high property taxes, but he departed from the script by suggesting both a cause and a cure for the ailment. There are too many special or single-purpose districts, boards, and authorities in Illinois, he said. Many of them are run by appointed rather than elected officials, who, though insulated from the political pressures by which voters control the spending enthusiasms of their elected counterparts, nevertheless levy taxes on local property for their support.


The total tax rates paid by property owners and renters (the forgotten persons of the property tax debate) are thus not the product of any single legislative body but are merely the accidental accumulation of many separate rates levied for schools, parks, sewers, and the like. It is Kane's view that it is this combination of too many tax units and too little voter control that is contributing to the rise in local property taxes. In order to control local taxation Kane proposed legislation making it possible to merge some special purpose districts with larger general purpose units.


Such consolidations would probably achieve some efficiencies in operation—Kane likes to cite the example  of the township road supervisor with a $70,000 road grader that sits in the garage nine months of the year—although the point is debatable. In any event the real point of the reform is political, not administrative. By consolidating functions and the taxing authority that supports them, one consolidates responsibility. In the process one also clarifies the now-confused relationship between government and governed—a happy result, since for government to work it must first be, if not intelligent (that may be too much to hope for), at least intelligible.


Kane's proposals are not especially new, though they aren't often heard in political conversation. A year ago Clarence Danhof, professor of political economy at Springfield's Sangamon State University, authored a position paper published by SSU's Center for the Study of Middle-Size Cities titled "Modernizing Springfield's Governments." In it, Danhof points out that the typical Springfield resident pays taxes to and is serviced by fifteen units of government. Of these, ten are run by people elected by the voters directly and five by appointees. According to Danhof, these governments spent roughly $143 million in fiscal year 1975–76, of which some $61 million was supplied "in one way or another" by Springfield taxpayers.


That $61 million ($630 per capita) may be seen as the total local cost in taxes of local government yet, as Danhof notes, "no organization of local government has responsibility for the total," since each of the fifteen units cooks only its own slice of the revenue pie as it were. Danhof thus asks a question: "Does the mix of local services supplied by local government expenditures represent . . . the mix of services desired by the public?" No one knows for sure, since there is no single mechanism by which voters may dictate the nature and amount of local spending, the system having evolved haphazardly over three generations by legislatures, courts, and referenda. But Danhof is willing to venture a guess. "Any relationship between the mix of services now offered and the contemporary priorities of the public," he writes, "is more coincidental than logical or coherent."


Danhof suggests a remedy which deserves more discussion than I can give it here, but like Kane's, its net effect would be the consolidations of at least the functions and in some cases the form of many existing local government units. Consolidations of one sort or another are not universally admired as a solution to the problems of local government financing, however.


I've had it suggested to me, for example, that small single-purpose districts enhance, not diminish voters' control over the allocation of local government resources, since the lines of responsibility for the provision of a given service (say, sewers) are free of the bureaucratic thicket that obscures the voters' view in larger, multipurpose governments. Elected officials of each airport authority and mosquito abatement authority may be recalled at the polls, after all, and even appointees may be pressured through their sponsors, who usually are other elected officials.


Of course, the work of focusing voter attention on an issue, devising an appropriate remedy, organizing information, money, and people to put it into force is all horribly hard. In single cases it works, to be sure. But a dozen governments would require a dozen such efforts to accomplish more than piecemeal change. Danhof notes (I think correctly) that voters will rarely even attempt such efforts except in times of crisis such as bankruptcy or scandal. As he phrases it, "Even if some voters were willing to devote much of their time and energies to evaluating the operations of their local governments, the system is inherently unresponsive."


Kane's target in his campaign talks were often appointed officials who run local units, and Danhof agrees that "the large number of appointed officials spending tax dollars seems to violate the principal [sic] of direct responsibility to the electorate." But as Danhof points out, there is a point at which the fragmentation of local government places impossible burdens on the attention and commitment of the voters, so that even the power of the vote in controlling the course of local government is exercised fitfully if at all. Some kind of reordering is needed to solve more problems than just high property taxes. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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