Op-Ed: Wheeler Calls SB 3075 Deliberate Bludgeoning of County Budgets

During the second week of this year’s veto session, the majority party once again sought to ignore the demand of Illinois voters and their call for bipartisan solutions. On a party-line vote of 67-46, the Democrats in the Illinois House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 3075 under the guise of a narrative to reduce costs. The bill, if signed into law by Gov. Quinn prior to Gov.-Elect Rauner taking office, would slash civil juries from twelve members to six, while increasing pay by more than six-times its current level.

On face value this seems like a relatively good thing, local governments are financially strapped, why not save some money by reducing the size of juries. Governments can reduce expenditures and be able to better compensate those missing time from work to perform their civic duty. However, what about the rights of a person to have a jury of their peers, doesn’t it seem a bit obtuse to arbitrarily cut jury sizes in half? In a democracy as diverse as ours, a group of only six people may come to a very different conclusion than a group of twelve, particularly on civil cases where money is being awarded to one of the parties. The reason for twelve jury members was not determined without careful consideration, and for good reason.

Even if we ignore the questionable nature of arbitrarily cutting jury size in half, what about the difference between civil and criminal juries? Only civil juries will be reduced to six, not criminal juries, so how will this impact cost-savings? Here again we have a problem of actually saving money. In both McHenry and Lake County, the counties have stated that the vast majority of jury trials are criminal in nature, not civil, making any savings from reducing jury size negligible. However, if jury compensation were to remain at current levels, there would be some savings to the counties that could then potentially be passed onto taxpayers.

The problem with SB 3075 in terms of savings to the counties is that it dramatically increases the costs associated with juries. This bill doesn’t only increase the compensation for the civil juries it cuts in size, it increases the compensation for all juries. Instead of $4 per day and mileage compensation, compensation would jump to $25 for the first day and $50 for the second day; that’s an increase of six-times and twelve-times respectively. There is no doubt that this increase in costs will be borne on the backs of the taxpayers in McHenry and Lake Counties. Officials from both counties have stated unequivocally that SB 3075 will dramatically increase costs; a 425 percent increase according to McHenry County’s own estimates. In 2013, McHenry County spent just over $88,000 paying jurors for performing their civic duty. Had SB 3075 been law in 2013, McHenry conservatively estimates that it would have had to payout $368,000. Similarly, Lake County estimates its costs under SB 3075 increasing by $500,000.

The simple fact is that this is another unfunded-mandate handed down to Illinois taxpayers at the behest of special interest. Actions like this are what have led Illinois into its current state of financial calamity. Until sensible fiscal management is sought by all the elected officials who represent McHenry County and Lake County in Springfield, this type of bludgeoning of county budgets and taxpayers will continue.

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