Illinoisans strongly favor tough ethics reforms that are stalled in Springfield, poll shows

Polling by former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn shows a big public appetite to let voters write tougher ethical constraints into the state constitution.

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Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks during a news conference at the Chicago City Clerk’s office at City Hall in June 2022. He's pushing for tougher ethics reforms in Springfield.

Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks during a news conference at the Chicago City Clerk’s office at City Hall in June 2022. He’s now pushing for tougher ethics reforms in Springfield.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Overwhelming majorities of Illinoisans favor stronger state ethics reforms that lawmakers have sidestepped despite a string of high-profile public-corruption cases, new polling by former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn shows.

The statewide survey found exceedingly high support for a constitutional amendment empowering voters to impose tougher ethical constraints on Springfield and for a prohibition on indicted ex-legislators, like former Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, from drawing a state pension while awaiting trial.

Polling also showed three out of four Illinoisans want to bar legislators from voting on bills where they have conflicts of interest. Now, the law books don’t clearly define conflicts, make the process of abstention completely self-governed, and impose no penalties if someone casts votes in their own financial self-interest.

There is no discernible legislative movement on any of these initiatives, and Quinn says he hopes the lopsided results from his polling will spur lawmakers into action.

“It shows convincingly in my opinion that the people really are for reform way ahead of incumbent politicians, whether it’s in the Legislature in Springfield or it’s back in Chicago with the City Council and the mayor,” Quinn said.

“Too often, they’re not listening, and the best way to get action, I think, is through a vivid poll that shows where the people are, and the politicians have to catch up,” he said.

Quinn commissioned the Democratic polling firm, Blueprint Polling, to conduct a survey of 448 Illinoisans between March 13 and 15. The poll reached people via text message and through live-calling and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.4%.

Quinn has touted a constitutional amendment sponsored by state Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, to allow binding, petition-driven ethics reforms to be built directly into the constitution.

In order to be on this fall’s ballot, it needs to clear the Legislature by May 5.

“Those kinds of laws, where the people want it and the legislature won’t act — the only way to get it is through initiative and referendum,” said Quinn, who held office between 2009 and 2015.

The idea for a constitutional amendment to empower voters to “directly enact stronger ethical standards for state and local politicians through initiative petitions and binding referendums” drew backing from 80% of poll respondents, with only 8% opposed and 12% unsure.

Support among Democrats stood at 80%, while 82% of Republicans embraced the proposal. Among independents, 77% backed the idea, the poll found.

“To see an 80% level in any type of polling question is really unprecedented,” Spain said.

“The message that we see in this poll is consistent from many of the jurors that spoke out after the decisions made in the federal corruption trials that have been taking place over the last year — that we have to do something different in the state of Illinois,” Spain said.

Results were even more one-sided in prohibiting retired legislators from collecting state pensions while indicted for corruption. Now, the state retirement system that oversees legislative pensions waits to suspend payments until ex-legislators are found guilty of corruption charges.

The poll found 89% of respondents favor the tighter restriction, with only 7% opposed and 4% unsure. Among Democrats, 90% back the idea, and it’s even higher among Republicans at 93%. For independents, 76% were in favor.

State Rep. Amy Elik, R-Alton, and House Minority Leader Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, have legislation to suspend payments to any members ahead of trial if their felony corruption charges relate to or arise from their tenure on the state payroll. However, it, too, is stalled in the House.

“This whole idea of legislators, while they’re going on trial, collecting a pension, is not something the people of Illinois want,” Quinn said.

One of the most notable examples is Madigan, of Chicago, who is scheduled to stand trial in October.

He was first indicted in March 2022 on racketeering and bribery charges.

State retirement system records show that since then, Madigan has received $292,395 in state pension payments.

Quinn said he has pitched these reforms directly to House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, whom Quinn described as a “friend.”

“He has the power to either call a bill or set up a hearing on the bill or not. I had to deal with Mike Madigan for six years, and he just wouldn’t act on conflict-of-interest reform, or the ethics initiative or other important laws that would clean things up,” Quinn said. “Unfortunately, that’s continued.”

A Welch spokeswoman, however, would not commit to supporting any of the initiatives, saying only, “The speaker is looking forward to reviewing the proposals.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics for WBEZ and is the longtime former Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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