Emerging from the Dark Ages

middle-ages-735063_1280.jpgSometimes in Springfield, the truth beats any fiction you could invent. One of my bills this term seeks to fix a quirk in Illinois law that negatively impacts nonprofits and small businesses. Every nonprofit and business in Illinois must file an “annual report” with the Secretary of State. That report provides basics about the board members of the operation and includes the annual fee—it’s required to remain in good standing as a corporation.

I discovered in filing one of those reports this year that there is an electronic filing option. That was great news: instead of hand-writing the required information on a sheet of paper, cutting a check, and sending the papers in the mail, you could e-file with a credit card.

Here’s the problem: the Secretary of State’s office charges you an extra fee of $25, $50, or more for e-filing.

Because our fee statute hasn’t been rewritten in a while, the law had lumped e-filing in with “expedited services,” which allows to folks who need same-day treatment of their filing to pay an extra fee for that service. But most folks don’t need “expedited service,” especially when filing something like their annual report with the Secretary of State’s office.

My bill simply says that an e-filing will be treated like any other filing—it’s not an expedited service solely because of being conveyed electronically.

Seems easy enough, right? If anything, e-filing should cost the Secretary of State’s office less than processing all those paper forms and checks. And you eliminate issues like forgetting to include your check or the form getting lost in the mail. Not to mention avoiding the problem of someone mistyping your handwritten information into the Secretary of State’s database.

Well, in Springfield, nothing is that easy.

I got word that the Secretary of State’s office opposed my bill. The reason: money.

The staff at the Secretary of State’s office said they didn’t want to lose the extra money they are making off these fees. I’ve tried to make the case that most folks running nonprofits and small businesses are like me: when I saw the $50 fee I’d have to pay for e-filing, I went back and grabbed my pen, checkbook, and a stamp. There’s no way I was going to pay $50 extra for the privilege of e-filing.

The reality of Springfield is also that, because the Secretary of State is a popular Democrat, it’s nearly impossible to move a bill if his office is opposed. Before the committee hearing on the bill, I was having real trouble getting folks to sign on to the measure. (To her credit, Rep. Carol Sente, a Democrat from Vernon Hills, agreed to sign on as my chief cosponsor.)

Then came the committee hearing at the end of last week. I testified, and then the staff person from the Secretary of State’s office testified. All of the sudden, with both sides’ arguments laid bare, you could see the looks on the faces of the committee members change. They were not happy. Then came the questions:

“We charge people more to e-file, even though it costs us less to process?”

“Why don’t you guys get into the 21st Century?”

“If anything, shouldn’t we charge people more to file by mail, not less?”

It didn’t go well for the Secretary of State. The bill advanced on a bipartisan vote of 6-1. 

While the prospects now look good for this bill, there are plenty of other similar measures that die quietly. This is a mentality we run into every day at the Capitol. The question isn’t whether a particular fee or tax makes any sense, or whether it best serves taxpayers, nonprofits, and small businesses.

Instead, the fees and taxes are imposed because those inside the government see the fees and taxes as their money. They forget that “We the People” send that money—the product of our labor and industry—to fund a proper state government.

When you’re looking where to lay the blame for the dysfunction in Springfield, you can start with the roadblocks I ran into here. There’s way too much deference to politically powerful people and offices, and bureaucrats forget that government exists to serve taxpayers and not the other way around.

The one way I know to fight these mindsets is to shine a bright spotlight on them whenever they rear their ugly heads. As it’s said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”