Government official, shrink thyself

A recent article in Crain’s Chicago Business asked nine Chicago businesswomen want they want to see change for 2018. I found myself nodding in agreement with most of it, save for the opening paragraph. At the risk of making a mountain out of a molehill, the comments are worth addressing because they rest on a single data point, presented out of context.

In answering the question of how she would “improve the city and its business environment,” interim vice chancellor for public and government affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago Theresa Mintle says she would “put government on a diet.”

It is well-known Illinois has more units of government than any other state in the union—nearly 7,000 at last count. They do not make us healthier, give us better schools or build safer roads. In fact, the man-hours and tax dollars dedicated to supporting the bureaucracy are holding Illinois and local areas back from investing in systems and efficiencies that would keep us competitive in the modern, tech-driven world.

This 7000 units of government talking point is a favorite of the smaller government crowd. In fact, that phrase mimics a December 2016 article from the Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian organization that’s long on think-tanking, but short on effective governing.

Mintle says Illinois should “use the resources freed up by reducing units of government to reinvest in higher education.” Through omission, she obscures just what that government does and the context in which it occurs.

The data Mintle cites comes from a 2012 Census report. Governing magazine lists it in an easy-to-read chart here, which shows that Illinois does lead the nation in units of government: 6,963 to be exact.

Of those units, 3,227 are special districts. The Census describes special districts as fulfilling everything from “such basic social needs as hospitals and fire protection, to the less conspicuous tasks of mosquito abatement and upkeep of cemeteries.” Mintle doesn’t say, but one assumes she thinks mosquitos and corpses are areas best suited to government cutbacks and not hospitals and fire departments. Indeed, John Oliver’s reporting on special districts shows there’s likely some fat to be cut:

Mintle’s New Year’s wish doesn’t mention that Illinois ranks 7th for the most counties in the U.S and has eight cities with populations over 100,000 (only seven states have more), both of which necessitate more units of government than other states.

Yet when you look at Illinois’s units of government per 100k residents (see the second chart at Governing), Illinois falls to 12th, below North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Alaska, none of which seem to end up as the right’s whipping boys for governmental waste.

What Mintle also doesn’t say is within those 7,000 are 905 independent school districts, placing Illinois third in the U.S. for the most governmental districts devoted to education. While there may be bureaucracy to reduce there, those districts include plenty of teachers. How this does not “give us better schools,” as she assets, is not explained. Mintle believes in the need for more resources for higher education, but doesn’t say whether her suggested cuts should come at the expense of our childen’s schooling, which would make them less prepared for “the modern tech-driven world” she wants them to compete in.

It’s interesting to find Mintle suddenly in a position of advocating the cutting of alleged government waste. First, she’s a public employee at an institution of higher learning, one of the best kinds of government spending. She undoubtedly sees the good work done by government every day.

As Mintle well knows, a background in government can be helpful in securing employment. Prior to her role at UIC, she was CEO of the non-governmental Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Her political background is part of why she was hired at the Chamber:

Mintle was a controversial pick in 2013. Although the chamber conducted a nationwide search and vetted 100-plus contenders, it turned to a political insider who lacked CEO experience.

Before joining the Chamber, Mintle was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s chief of staff and chief of staff to the head of the Chicago Transit Authority. She also served in the CTA’s governmental relations unit, in effect working as a lobbyist for the organization. (Lobbyists are apparently the kind of essential government employees that should survive any reduction in governmental units.)

Before leaving the CTA, Mintle also helped create the kind of financial malfeasance she now decries – with herself as the beneficiary:

Mayoral Chief of Staff Theresa Mintle helped enact a special early-retirement plan at her former employer—the Chicago Transit Authority—that entitled her to a $65,000 annual pension she wouldn’t have qualified for otherwise.

Mintle ended up not taking the pension perk after this reporting from Crain’s and the BGA brought it to light.

Perhaps Mintle’s experience in the benefits of government waste has caused her to rethink her previous work and become a crusader for smaller government. Or perhaps it’s another case of do as I say, not as I do.

More importantly, we should always be wary of those who lean too heavily on the “we have to cut government waste” hobby horse without looking at the impact of who and what government supports. It’s an important topic and deserving of more than generalities and sound bites.

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