Illinois taxpayers who may wonder what happens to the millions of dollars of state-imposed fees that finance hundreds of special funds–from “used tire management” to the “whistleblower reward and protection” fund–are getting answers from a state senator’s Web site.
Republican Dan Rutherford of Pontiac is chairman of the Committee for Legislative Action, which set up the site more than a year ago after accusing Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) of imposing huge increases in more than 300 fees, and then “sweeping” the money from the dedicated accounts to shore up the state’s sagging general fund.
The site, http://www.committeeforlegislativeaction.org, details how more than $166 million in dedicated money has been transferred into the general fund. Rutherford concedes the transfers are legal, but said he doesn’t think they are proper or ethical.
“We started the Web site because the public can’t keep up with it [fee increases],” he said. Now that the public has been given access to the details of what is happening, some 25,000 people have signed a petition, found on the Web site, opposing such practices.
Impact Has Been Personal
Rutherford’s family knows from personal experience the impact of such funds sweeps.
“My grandmother is in a nursing home, and part of what she pays goes to cover the nursing home’s licensing fee,” Rutherford said. That money is supposed to support nursing home activities, but because the money is swept into the general fund, grandma, in effect, is subsidizing state functions that should be supported by general revenues, he said.
Rutherford described the practice as something like an unending circle, in which the fees are raised one year because the fund is supposedly short of money. Then the next year, when there’s a “surplus,” the fund is raided for general fund purposes. Naturally, the following year the raided fund is again short of money, so the fees have to be raised again.
Law Guarantees Legality
Facing that kind of criticism and doubts about the legality of transferring money from dedicated funds into the general fund, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly last year passed a law affirming the legality of the transfers. That, in turn, led to an Illinois Chamber of Commerce lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state business fee, arguing the payers were paying more than they should have as a result of the fee transfers.
A lower court ruled against the state chamber, and the case now is on appeal.
Meanwhile, opponents of the fee transfers succeeded in amending the legislation to save at least $5 million in 17 funds from being swept into the general fund. The rescued funds included programs for mammograms, park district youth, and state police DUI enforcement.
A spokeswoman for Blagojevich did not return a call seeking comment on the Web site.
Sewer Fee Also Tracked
In addition to publicizing the state’s sweeps of dedicated fees into the general fund, the Web site has a separate section devoted entirely to a sewer and wastewater discharge fee levied by the state on municipalities. The state Environmental Protection Agency, which keeps track of the funds, at first refused to reveal exactly how much each municipality paid. Then, to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request, the agency dumped a load of documentation on Rutherford that an intern had to straighten out, the senator said.
The next year, Rutherford went directly to the municipalities, which were more willing to share information on how much their taxpayers were subsidizing the general fund through the wastewater disposal fee.
The results, Rutherford said, were eye-opening. Because the fee was assessed on the size of treatment plants, instead of population, some small communities were paying huge per-capita charges. While Chicago was paying about 15 cents per person, the southern Illinois town of Maeystown was paying more than $20 per person, and Smithfield in western Illinois was paying more than $70 per person.
Eventually, the legislature approved a fee reduction to more reasonable levels for the smallest, most heavily burdened communities.
Dennis Byrne ([email protected]) is a Chicago writer and consultant.