Gov. Pat Quinn’s handlers got me pumped this week with a heads-up that his “State of the State” speech would confront a major ethics issue that’s bedeviled Illinois for years: Conflicts of interest. That’s what occurs when lawmakers use their public positions to benefit their private interests, even when it hurts the taxpayers who elect them regularly and compensate them generously.
Quinn’s tenure has been hampered by his uneven steerage of our tempest-tossed ship of state: Fighting corruption and a fiscal train wreck with baby steps and missteps instead of giant leaps of enlightened leadership.
The Legislature is also culpable, but they haven’t followed Quinn dutifully because he hasn’t led strategically, so we’re left with the nation’s worst pension debacle, a shameful multibillion-dollar stack of unpaid bills, a woefully unbalanced budget and a deteriorating business climate.
Sadly, Quinn’s biggest “accomplishment” was a massive hike in the state income tax that turned out to be the fiscal equivalent of a finger in the dike. But dystopia doesn’t have to be a permanent condition, and the governor’s aides told me his “State of the State” speech would offer bold remedies.
The “old” Pat Quinn — Don Quixote on steroids — would tilt at windmills again but, unlike Cervantes’ errant knight, actually knock some of them over.
He was taking on conflicts of interest, one of the Better Government Association’s core issues, and I flashed back to 2009 when the General Assembly approved video gaming, the reputed “crack cocaine” of gambling, in a classic conflict-ridden deal.
Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, who sat on the county’s tax appeals board then, also worked as a paid lobbyist for a coin operators’ group that favored video gaming. So he went down to Springfield to plead their case.
Berrios’ receptive audience included House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, who moonlight in Chicago as high-priced tax lawyers representing big businesses that don’t like their tax bills.
Madigan and Cullerton got their clients’ taxes lowered by Berrios’ appeals board, and the rest of us had to pay the difference. Berrios got video gaming for his clients.
And that’s the conflict: Serving competing interests at the same time — public and private — which invites quid pro quos and tit-for-tats, even if they’re never discussed.
So when I heard that Quinn was tackling conflicts of interest, I was pumped.
But when he finally got to the issue near the end of his speech, he called only for a ban on “conflict of interest voting.”
That means lawmakers couldn’t vote on bills that would benefit them and those around them financially.
The current law simply urges them to “consider” abstaining, but it’s not mandatory.
This, unfortunately, is another well-intentioned baby step. Madigan and Cullerton already avoid votes on most issues that raise conflict concerns.
But their Democratic underlings know what’s important to them, and that’s how they usually vote, so the abstentions have little effect on the outcome.
A serious attack on conflicts would make it illegal for lawmakers to profit from private endeavors that involve tax dollars.
Madigan and Cullerton would have to decide whether to be legislators or tax lawyers, but not both. Berrios could be a county assessor or a Springfield lobbyist, but not both. Same for any other public official with a government-related private interest.
Work for us or work for them.
The “old” Pat Quinn would’ve been all in, tilting away furiously, but this was an anemic Don Quixote, unwilling to aggressively challenge the same legislative leaders who’ve aggressively ignored and disrespected him.
I was pumped. But he wasn’t. So we got chumped.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.