SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias has completed his first 100 days in office, a milestone used by political leaders since President Franklin Roosevelt to gauge leadership style and progress toward fulfilling campaign promises.
Giannoulias kept busy as he worked to follow through on his pledge to modernize the sprawling office while simultaneously pursuing a robust legislative agenda that includes a fight against book banning.
At 47, he is the state’s youngest constitutional officer, succeeding Jesse White, 88, who held the office for nearly a quarter-century. It is a familiar position for Giannoulias, who was elected the youngest state treasurer in the country at age 30 in 2007.
Giannoulias, in an interview with Lee Enterprises last week, said that while being treasurer smoothed his transition, the role was much more narrowly focused than the broad reach of the secretary of state’s office.
“The fact that this is the most robust office in the country; we’re wearing many hats,” Giannoulias said. “That’s the biggest difference between (this office and) treasurer, was just how do we invest taxpayer dollars the most efficiently and get the best rate of return versus this, where you have so many departments and we also have an aggressive legislative agenda.”
The office has more than 4,000 employees and is the second-largest constitutional office after the governor’s office.
Since taking office, Giannoulias has implemented policies that he hopes will make going to the DMV easier and reduce the “time tax” of people waiting for services.
“I could not be more proud of our first 100 days,” Giannoulias said. “We have been unbelievably aggressive with what we want and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Under Giannoulias, driver services facilities have expanded appointment systems and implemented a “skip the line” feature that allows people to schedule their appointment up to 10 days in advance. The feature is available at several locations, including Bloomington, Decatur and Carbondale.
The new initiative also addresses the lack of technological infrastructure by providing those facilities with tablets to sign up customers that do not have an appointment so they are not turned away.
“(They) were very helpful and very professional,” Judy Lehman told Lee Enterprises after her visit to a driver services facility in Bloomington on Friday. “Before, it was a little bit chaotic. But now, I think that what has helped is the fact that for a driver’s license, you have to have an appointment, but just to get a sticker, you just walk in and there’s no waiting or anything. It was really good.”
Several others who visited the Bloomington facility on Friday also said they found an efficient experience. “(My experience) was very, very fast and much quicker. I was in and out,” said resident LaShawn Brown.
Christopher Lemmons said he was not sure what exactly had changed in the facility he had just left, “but it’s great.”
“There were long lines here before and you would have to wait for so long,” Lemmons said. “I’m not sure what the system was in there, but it wasn’t working. I feel like they really focus on the fact that we do have personal lives and things that we need to do.”
Giannoulias acknowledged that some changes are a “big deal” to Illinoisans after having White as secretary of state for 24 years. He described the path to modernization as a “team effort.”
“He has been busy and I think he’s off to a good start,” said former Gov. Jim Edgar, who was secretary of state from 1983 to 1991. “I think that his new proposal to have where you can make an appointment to get your driver’s license, that will be a challenge to get that going. But it’s good to try new things and that would be very popular with the public if you can get that to work.”
Part of his team effort included signing an ethics reform for all secretary of state employees on his first day in office, bringing in an outside consultant to evaluate all 24 departments under the SOS office, filling job vacancies and testing a pilot program for time cards.
Former state Rep. Dan Brady, a Bloomington Republican who lost to Giannoulias in the November election, said they agree on the importance of technological infrastructure and the vital work of the organ donor registry. Brady was a part of Giannoulias’ transition team.
“We are streamlining the process to make it as easy as possible for people to donate (and) for people to know what we’re doing,” Giannoulias said. “Let people know that 300 people every year die because they’re waiting for an organ. That to me is heartbreaking.”
Brady worked with Giannoulias on topics related to organ and tissue donations, an issue Brady is familiar with from his days as McLean County coroner.
“Surround yourself with good people and there’s nothing you can’t overcome and he’s worked on that and continues to work on that,” Brady said. “So we’ll continue to wish him well as he works as secretary of state for the betterment of all Illinois.”
Aside from issuing driver’s licenses, the secretary of state also acts as keeper of official state records, maintains the 20-building Capitol Complex and oversees the state library.
Giannoulias’ legislative agenda includes a measure that would prevent public and school libraries from banning, removing, or restricting access to books or other materials.
House Bill 2789, sponsored by Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Downers Grove and Senator Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines, passed the House last month and is expected to be voted on in the Senate sometime in the next few weeks.
He said he drafted the legislation “to ensure that book banning will have no place in Illinois and to help remove pressure that librarians have had to endure from extremist groups like the Proud Boys, who have targeted some of our libraries.
“Librarians have never been so scared, disrespected or threatened.”
Giannoulias said he is “very proud” of the legislation because he sees book banning as an assault on democracy.
The push highlights Giannoulias’ willingness to wade deeper into partisan political battles than his predecessor, who tended to focus on the customer service aspect of the role. It’s also an area where Giannoulias and his former Republican opponent disagree.
“Those are all issues in my opinion (that should be) left to local boards, school boards, library board and school systems, better than I think interjecting oneself but he sees differently,” Brady said. “He’s the secretary of state and chief librarian so he can try and navigate through those choppy waters as he sees fit.”
The secretary of state office has also championed literacy programs, which Edgar described as his “favorite part of the job” because of the “good people” who serve in the profession.
Giannoulias is also supporting House Bill 2431, sponsored by Rep. Marcus J. Evans, Jr., D-Chicago and Sen. Javier Cervantes, D-Chicago, that would prohibit drivers from using technology to access video streaming services like Zoom while driving. The legislation unanimously passed the House in March and awaits a vote in the Senate.
Further initiatives include House Bill 3326, which would ensure that automatic license plate readers do not target individuals from out of state that may be seeking access to reproductive healthcare or to track an individual’s immigration status.
“We’ll always be there to support law enforcement; that’s important to me,” Giannoulias said. “When it comes to automatic license plate readers, we want to make sure that they’re used solely for the purpose they were designed, which is to go after bad guys.”
The office has provided more than $21 million in grants to help law enforcement officials go after carjackers.
Giannoulias said that his pursuit of a hearty legislative agenda on top of his focus on improving the core functions of the office “shows that we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
“We’re helping people,” he said, “not just through our grants for law enforcement, not just through the book banning legislation, but also, you know, through road safety, where we’re making it illegal to Zoom and be on Facetime when you’re on the road.”
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April 29, 2023 at 07:50AM