This spring marks the fifth anniversary of a valiant campaign to eliminate the “culture of corruption” that’s ripped off Illinois taxpayers and citizens for decades.
Sadly, it’s not a celebration because it didn’t produce enough government reform.
But it’s worth remembering because it’s still an important cause, and there’s so much left to do.
Let’s go back to the spring of 2009: One former governor, George Ryan, is still in prison for corruption; his disgraced successor, Rod Blagojevich, is impeached and indicted; and Illinois is a national laughingstock.
Blago’s scurrilous behavior, which includes a depraved attempt to “sell” President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat and a national “I did nothing wrong” media tour, gives late-night comedians irresistible fodder for their sardonic reflections on the scandalous “Illinois Way” — bribes, kickbacks and backroom deals.
Then comes a beacon of light — the Illinois Reform Commission — appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn after he replaces the ousted Blagojevich.
The commission, which features an all-star cast of good government types, spends a hundred hectic days convening meetings around the state, listening to hours of public testimony, and then issuing a 90-page report with dozens of specific reform recommendations.
A “blueprint” is what they call it.
A “misprint” is how the General Assembly treats it — stiffing most of the proposals and making this a sad anniversary.
“I think it’s certainly regrettable that there hasn’t been leadership shown to move many of the recommendations across the goal line,” says former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, who chaired the commission and now sits on our BGA board.
Collins shared his hopes and frustrations in a book called “Challenging the Culture of Corruption.”
Written, he quips, because “it was cheaper than going through therapy.”
For the record, Collins donates his share of book sales to the BGA and other nonprofit reform organizations, so we’re grateful.
And, in retrospect, the commission’s work wasn’t a total loss — lawmakers approved the state’s first-ever campaign contribution limits, strengthened the Freedom of Information Act, gave Illinois residents the ability to recall governors, and expanded the authority of some internal agency watchdogs.
But those changes fell woefully short of the commission’s goals.
The campaign finance piece was watered down, and the Legislature ignored proposals to shorten election seasons, establish public financing of judicial races, strengthen procurement and hiring controls, close lobbying and conflict of interest loopholes, allow the attorney general to empanel grand juries in public corruption cases, and take the politics out of legislative redistricting.
“One issue we pushed very hard was redistricting,” Collins says. “To me that’s a real game-changer from a standpoint of moving the needle and reforming our government a bit.”
That push has continued, and this year a modified redistricting reform plan is poised to appear on the November ballot, as a referendum question, along with a ballot initiative to let voters impose term limits on state legislators.
But both are facing court challenges, and neither would take effect for several years, so the landscape that allows corruption to thrive in Illinois remains mostly intact, and the commission’s suggestion that all of us become “persistent watchdogs” has gone mostly unheeded.
“This goal now belongs to all of us, and collectively we can obtain the government we desire,” reads the closing paragraph of the commission’s executive summary.
That means the failure to eliminate the culture of corruption belongs to all of us, collectively.
Not enough Illinois citizens are registering to vote, following the issues and then showing up at the polls; too few good people are running for office; and the election process is still rigged to favor incumbents.
But instead of throwing in the towel, let’s revisit the commission’s recommendations, tweak them to reflect changes in the political landscape, and mount a statewide campaign to get the best ones approved by the Legislature.
It won’t happen this year, but maybe in a year or two or three.
Then we’ll finally have something to celebrate, instead of lamenting another anniversary of a missed opportunity.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.