On Wednesday we laid out the case for Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker to make tollway reform one of his top priorities. With his power over the tollway board, Pritzker can begin to address failures made apparent this year through an ongoing investigative series by our reporter Marni Pyke.
Political favoritism in hiring and awarding contracts, secrecy and delays in providing details to the public, and loose conflict-of-interest procedures need to be corrected, and quickly.
But simply swapping in Democrats to replace people appointed to office or clouted into jobs by Gov. Bruce Rauner and top Republicans isn't enough. Democrats have had their turn at the tollway patronage plum, not always with better results.
When the tollway bypasses the best deal to grant political favors, suburban drivers shoulder the cost. Chicago and downstate drivers largely use freeways, without tolls.
Today, we share our ideas for true tollway reform:
• Reduce political hiring. Patronage hiring is permitted in too many jobs, which are called "Rutan-exempt" in Illinois legal shorthand. That allowed the tollway to flood the agency with highly-paid top Republican insiders. More of these jobs needs to be designated as patronage free so they go to the most qualified, not the most connected.
• Tighten contract awards. A committee recommends professional contracts, which bypasses open bidding. Who's on that committee? The tollway at first wouldn't say, but we found a tollway director and Chief Operating Officer Kevin Artl, former political director of the Illinois House Republican Organization, participated. That selection process allowed the tollway to give a $157 million engineering contract to a company that hired tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom's daughter and tollway Chief Engineer Paul Kovacs' son and donated to charities run by two tollway directors. We're not a fan of selection committees, but if you're going to have one, it must be truly independent and transparent.
• Open the door on subcontracts. The tollway hires contractors that hire subcontractors. That's where Pyke found politically connected firms. The tollway said it "plays no role in how these teams are assembled." It needs to, with public votes on subcontractors and publication of their conflict-of-interest statements.
A tollway ad hoc committee draft recommendation, issued after an Illinois Senate hearing stemming from the Daily Herald series, touches on these issues and more, including recommending directors and staff members with conflicts of interest be banned from committees choosing contractors.
It's a worthwhile exercise but is largely a view from within the existing system. Now is the time to zoom out, and make real changes.