Executive Reform

Could you write a $65 billion budget? Learn about the Illinois Executive Branch and the biggest challenges it faces in running our state.

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What is Executive Reform? 

The people and institutions that make up the executive branch are responsible for running Illinois’ government on a day-to-day basis, a responsibility that includes proposing a state budget, appointing administrators and department directors, and holding administrative responsibility over several boards and commissions that directly shape key issues, such as education, environmental protection, and public health in Illinois. In asking how we can reform the executive branch, we’re asking what changes we can make to the structure, functions, and selection of executive officers to support a better-run and more representative state government. 

Illinois’ Executive Branch

Illinois’ Governor is the Chief Executive of the state, responsible for the administration of all areas of the Executive Branch. The governor appoints administrators and department directors, subject to Senate approval, and holds administrative responsibility over several boards and commissions. Every year the governor presents a proposed state budget and gives a State of the State address. The governor can grant pardons and reprieves, call special legislative sessions, and approve or veto legislation. In short, we elect him or her to run the state of Illinois. 

The Governor chooses a Lieutenant Governor as running mate, and they run on the same ballot. The Illinois Lieutenant Governor is second in line to the Governor, and often focuses on a few policy priorities within the administration. Other executive branch members, such as the attorney general, secretary of state, comptroller, and treasurer, are directly elected to their offices. 

A few other key facts on the executive branch include: 

  • Illinois executive positions currently do not have term limits.
  • Illinois is approaching a mid-term state election in 2014, in which all of its executive branch positions will be up for election.
  • Illinois was highlighted as the third most corrupt state nationwide in a prominent report released in 2012.
  • Illinois has never had a governor of a minority race, or a female governor.
  • The majority of Governors serve between one and two terms; the longest serving Governor was Jim Thompson (four terms).
  • The current Secretary of State, Jesse White, has held the position for fifteen years, the second longest tenure for that office.
  • The executive branch manages a state government of over 48,000 employees.
  • Last year’s enacted operating budget was over $64 billion.
  • In 2012, Illinois was named one of the five worst run states. 

What are some current topics for reform?

Most Illinoisans come in contact with the services controlled by state government – and therefore the executive branch – on a daily basis. How can we make sure that our state is “well run”? How can our executive branch be sure to provide for the whole state? How can we make sure equity goals are visible in the executive branch of our state? What do we need in a candidate for governor to make this happen?


Illlinois has a troubling history of corruption in the executive branch. Two of the last three Governors were prosecuted for corruption charges; Rod Blagojevich was impeached for corruption allegations and George Ryan was convicted of racketeering for actions as governor and secretary of state. It’s a challenge that starts at the top, but is pervasive throughout the system – public corruption conviction data from the U.S. Department of justice shows that the Chicago metropolitan region has been the most corrupt area in the country since the 1970’s, and Illinois is the third most corrupt state in the country. Most of the charges and convictions focus on a payoff for a contract, law, or permit to do business. 

How do we tackle such an entrenched legacy, particularly when nearly 90% of Illinoisans say government is corrupt? How can future governors regain the public trust? What kind of safeguards could be put in place to keep this from happening in the future?

In 2012, Governor Pat Quinn introduced the “Lincoln Amendment,” which would allow state voters to enact ethics reforms through popular initiative and referendum. This followed on the heels of Governor Quinn’s successful 2010 push for an amendment to the Illinois Constitution allowing for the recall of corrupt governors. Currently, voters may only propose, by popular initiative, amendments to the Illinois constitution that deal with the structure and procedure of the General Assembly. More recently, reform efforts have focused on term limits for elected officials. 

Current debates about alleviating corruption in Illinois: 

Can we increase accountability and transparency through constitutional amendments that open ethics reform targeted at the executive? 

Arguments in favor: 

  • They aren’t going to do it on their own: despite popular support, most major reforms are ignored by our elected officials; 
  • It would increase public oversight over executive offices; and
  • It would allow for a responsive, democratic mechanism to address entrenched corruption.

Arguments against:

  • A public referendum is a high barrier for change – there are other, more direct ways to address corruption; 
  • Most possible amendments won’t address the culture of corruption that’s too deeply embedded in current officeholders – we need to focus on the people, not the institutions; and
  • What’ll pass will be politically feasible, not what’s best for running the state.  

Other methods considered: 

There have been a number of other proposals on how best to stymy corruption in Illinois. Right now, there is a voter initiative to introduce term-limits. 

Some argue that the best path forward is campaign finance – limiting the amount of money, and its out-sized influence, in the election of executive officials.

A third option is to overhaul lobbying in the state, increasing transparency through reporting and limiting certain activities, such as strengthening revolving door laws. 

Others insist that the best option is to close loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act, increasing public access to documents – an action that should be tied to increased education on corruption for citizens. 

Resources on tackling corruption in Illinois:

Chicago and Illinois, Leading the Pack in Corruption

Curing Corruption in Illinois...

Reform Illinois Now

Illinois Ballot Measures Send Message to the Polls

Representing A Large and Diverse State 

Illinois is a diverse community – the 5th most populous state – and it's often noted as a microcosm of the rest of the country. Chicagoland, Central Illinois, and Southern Illinois often used to differentiate parts of the state; another breakdown is Chicagoland versus “downstate” Illinois. Of the 12.9 million people that live in Illinois, 9 million live in the Chicago region, a population division that has often led to competing policy priorities between urban and rural communities. 

Following national trends, Illinois’ officeholders have traditionally not reflected the diversity of the state’s residents – a problem that many point to as a reason that underrepresented communities continue to see their priorities marginalized in the political process. Illinois cannot boast a female or minority Governor in its history, and there are no candidates in the upcoming election for Governor from an underrepresented community (this holds true for most other executive offices as well; although there are seven women running in 2014). Comparatively, Illinois’ population is 63% White, Non-Hispanic, 15.8% Hispanic/Latino, 14.5% African American, and 4.6% Asian.

Given these demographic and geographical realities, how can we make sure that all Illinoisans feel like their voices are represented in our state government? What can the executive branch do to ensure that everyone in Illinois feels represented by the executive branch and has equal opportunities? The executive branch is responsible for many agencies and commissions and employs many people. How could this position promote equity in state government? How can we make sure equity goals are visible in the executive branch of our state? What changes or safeguards need to be created to make this possible?

Running the Government: Reflecting Priorities 

The state government under the Governor’s tutelage is a far-reaching institution that, day-in and day-out, works to serve citizens and meet their needs. There are over 90 state agencies and additional boards and commissions, which add up to over 48,000 employees. How these different agencies and institutions function plays a critical role in dictating economic and social outcomes. Additionally, the Governor drafts a state budget each year which is presented to the General Assembly (which is responsible for appropriating the funds). This year, the budget for 2015 was $65 billion. Fiscal management – how well resources are used – also largely falls in the executive bucket (this is shared with the General Assembly). In 2012, Illinois was considered one of the worst run states, a product of the state’s poor credit rating, weak fiscal practices, and high debt level. 

It is often said that budgets reflect priorities – yet its questionable how much those priorities align with those of the people of Illinois. Currently, the state faces a fiscal crisis and the possibility of deep cuts, and politics in the Governor’s office and General Assembly are dictating the outcomes. Moving forward, how can we make sure that average citizens can contribute to the design of the Governor’s recommended budget? How can they ensure essential services aren’t impacted in moments of fiscal constraint? Beyond the budget, what innovations can be implemented to improve the overall running of the state government, and how can citizens hold the Governor accountable to those improvements? 

Additional resources:

Book of the States 2013

State and Local Government

Fiscal 50: State Trends and Analysis

Grading the States 2008

Executive Brand and Other Elected Officials

State Budget Crisis Task Force

Illinois Executive Branch

Chicago Tribube: Executive Branch Tags

IL State and County Facts

The Best and Worst Run States in America

CyberDrive Illinois Handbook