Madigan is gone, but Illinois lawmakers are still reluctant to embrace ethics reforms
Sure, they passed an ethics bill. But it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.
With seven current or former state legislators, three Chicago aldermen and one Cook County commissioner hit with federal criminal charges in just the last few years, it seemed Illinois lawmakers might finally decide to get serious about toughening state ethics laws.
They didn’t. Again.
Oh, they passed an ethics bill, and it makes some improvements around the edges.
But, as always, the legislation stopped well short of showing a real commitment to cleaning up government.
Coming after the retirement under duress of former House Speaker Michael Madigan, this latest failure to act decisively on ethics might just give somebody the idea Madigan was only a symptom of this state’s way of doing business, not the sole cause of it.
If Madigan is indicted, there will be pressure for legislators to take this up again, as there was after the George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich scandals. But resistance to reform runs deep in Illinois.
Doing business is at the heart of the problem — more precisely, the reluctance of Illinois politicians to limit their moneymaking opportunities or give up their privacy in that regard.
Take one of the new “reforms.” For the first time, it blocks lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for six months after they leave office — but only kind of.
Never mind that most states set this sort of revolving-door prohibition at a year or more to prevent the fairly obvious problem of creating a perception that the people who make the laws could be doing favors for the people from whom they are seeking employment.
Even with the paltry six-month limit, Illinois legislators gave themselves a gaping loophole. The six-month ban doesn’t extend into the next legislative session. Which means lawmakers can leave office at the end of their term and start work as lobbyists the next day, when the new two-year session starts.
It makes you wonder why they set a limit at all, except for the obvious reason: They wanted the public to think they did something.
There’s also a new ban on lawmakers getting hired to lobby state or local governments, designed to address the ridiculous situation in which now-indicted state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, was getting paid to try to get sweepstakes gambling machines in Chicago legalized at the same time he was working to advance that same cause in Springfield.
But legislators gave themselves a loophole there, too. They still can lobby local governments as long as their client isn’t registered to lobby the General Assembly. How about they just make a choice between lobbying and serving as legislators?
Lawmakers won’t force that choice because they don’t want to do anything that might impinge on their ability to leverage their public service for personal financial gain.
All of the major do-gooder groups — the Better Government Association, Reform for Illinois, CHANGE Illinois and Common Cause — panned the legislation as inadequate.
Though I’ve never found the members of one political party to be more ethical than the other, Democrats control Springfield, so they have to wear the jacket for this failing.
It isn’t that the legislation is entirely without merit. For instance, there’s a new requirement that elected officials and certain employees have to disclose any sources of income that exceed $7,500. That seems to be an improvement, except for the $7,500 threshold.
It’s always amazed me how many Illinois politicians have been bought for far less than $7,500. Even adjusting for inflation, $7,500 is too high.
Why not just require them to disclose all sources of income? That doesn’t mean they’d actually reveal a bribe. But it might box them in a little the next time they thought about hiring out as a “consultant.”
Ideally, they’d have to disclose the amount of money received, too, or at least be required to provide a range.
It’s alsos an improvement that anyone required to file a statement of economic interest will have to disclose assets valued at more than $10,000 and debts of more than $10,000.
The latter will address the problem of politicians taking personal loans, some which never get repaid, from people who might want a favor. But again why only $10,000 and up?
I’ve never believed you can legislate honesty in politics. But it’s certainly possible to make life more uncomfortable for someone inclined to operate dishonestly.