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A better way to watch our tax money
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 4/24/2009 12:01 AM

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It's called "pay-to-play" because there are two sides to the equation. Last week in this space, we called for a public push for campaign contribution limits. That's one half of the equation. We also need to push our legislators for changes that will give us a fighting chance to end corruption in the spending of our tax dollars on contracts.

There is plenty of evidence that the system has been played for years. For example, a contract is approved for a certain contractor and that's all public, but then subcontractors are brought in secretly or changed, and the politically connected reap the benefits. The simple truth is that this is a very difficult area to monitor or even to find the time to monitor. We usually have no idea whether our tax dollars are being spent wisely on the lowest and best bidders.

Those leading the way from the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and the newer Illinois Reform Commission might not agree on every detail but they do concur this other half needs fixing too.

When it comes to bidding and contract awarding, it makes sense that the state's so-called procurement officers be insulated from political players and political pressure. We back efforts, therefore, to create a chief procurement officer, appointed by the governor and approved by a supermajority of legislators, who would serve for a set time frame and who could only be removed from the job, for cause, by impeachment.

Illinois also needs to create a monitoring officer and office that has access to contracts, requests for proposals and the whole spending process. This officer would be empowered to go to any meeting by any parties looking to spend our tax money and observe. A whole lot of that kind of openness will go a long way. Members of the Illinois Reform Commission suggest this office could be funded by a .1 percent fee on contracts. So, if the secretary of state, for example, hires a public relations firm to help with an organ donation ad campaign for $10,000, the office would have to add on $10 to fund the contract monitor who made sure it all was on the up and up.

No-bid contracts should be far rarer. And when any contract is awarded, both the state contract monitor and all of us should get to know all about the details through a one-stop sortable, searchable database online.

Finally, when a company or entity competes for state work, it should have to disclose the major financial interests and relationships of its officers and agents, including its lobbyists and subcontractors. State workers and legislators already have to file statements of economic interest now. They should have to disclose, on an ongoing basis, any investment or interest in any entity doing work for the state.

All of these changes should apply to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government.

Yes, it's complicated. It's also our hard-earned money. When it goes to an insider or to someone who gamed the system, we're all paying what amounts to a corruption tax. Now that's taxation without representation.