Dawn Geske Aug. 2, 2016, 10:40pm


SPRINGFIELD  —  The state of Illinois has moved to rein in the spending of the state's local governments on employee travel - spending which some have criticized as wasteful of taxpayers' dollars.

The law, the Local Government Travel Expense Control Act, which was recently signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner takes effect Jan. 1, 2017, placing restrictions on the travel, lodging and meal expenses made by employees of school districts, community colleges, counties, townships and other non-home rule entities. 

“These types of requirements are really helpful when they pertain to, especially, local government,” Sarah Brune, executive director at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, told the Cook County Record. “The clearer the law can be on whether it is an acceptable expenditure and what documentation is required the more likely there is to be transparency in this area. And it helps local government employees and board members as well, because they benefit from clearer requirements. It creates less opportunity for questionable expenses.”

Under the law these government agencies must regulate the type of business expenditures allowed, outline the maximum allowable reimbursement for travel, meal and lodging expenses and create a standardized form for expenses. Formal approval will be required for any expense that exceeds the limitations set or that is otherwise questionable.

Government agencies that fail to comply with the law and create a process for expense reimbursement as detailed under the law by March 1, 2017, will need to go before a public board for approval, potentially adding an incentive for these groups to comply.

Beginning March 1, 2017, anything expensed above the maximum allowable limit will be approved by a roll call vote of the district's or municipality's board, and only after the correct documentation has been submitted. Correct documentation would include a receipt or an estimate of costs for spending that has not yet been incurred,  as well as the name and job title of the local government representative doing the traveling, and the date and description of the event. All documentation will be subject to disclosure through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

“Overall I think the increased transparency is definitely going to help cut down on some expenses that may have been questionable in the past,” Brune said.

The law does allow for approval of the maximum allowable reimbursement because of emergency circumstances or anything that would be deemed extraordinary. The law also would prohibit reimbursement for entertainment purposes such as shows, amusements, theaters, cruises, sporting events and any other place of public or private entertainment or amusement.

It is unclear how much savings Illinois taxpayers may see through the law, as is how much public money local governments may have spent on unnecessary travel expenses.

But the law may have an impact on future costs. 

“Anytime there is an opportunity for increased transparency in the spending of taxpayer dollars that’s a benefit to the taxpayers of Illinois. And, this is an example of that type of policy," Brune said.

The law does not preempt home rule powers, allowing home rule municipalities to enact their own policies regarding expenses.

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