In the heat of the state’s budget battle, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner recently tagged his two top Democratic rivals as the poster boys for “conflict of interest” in Illinois government.

At a press conference, Rauner asserted that House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, both longtime attorneys, were blocking efforts to link his “turnaround agenda” with the budget process because their respective law firms handle property tax appeals.

“They have a fundamental conflict of interest with the taxpayers, with homeowners, small business owners in the state,” Rauner said while promoting a plan that includes a proposed property tax freeze.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton

Madigan and Cullerton dismissed Rauner’s claim as inaccurate and an act of political theatre.

Still, this latest dust-up again raises some intriguing public policy questions regarding Illinois’ conflict of interest policies, including: How does Illinois compare to other major states, when it comes to conflicts? How strong are its ethics laws regarding lawmaker conflicts? How does Illinois’ approach to avoiding conflicts measure up to “best practices”?

Assessing Conflict Data

A Better Government Association examination of ethics laws across the 50 states shows that Illinois’ guidelines for lawmaker conflicts of interest, transparency and accountability are about average compared to other states.

The State Integrity Investigation recently conducted by the Center for Public Integrity award Illinois a grade of C for its laws governing ethics, conflicts of interest and transparency.

The majority of states earned a C on the center’s report card. Only one state, surprisingly, New Jersey, infamous for public corruption, earned a B+. Four states earned a B or B-. Grades of D or F were issued to a total of 28 states.

“You can’t single out one state for having ‘best practices,’ because they all have room for improvement. And it’s hard to come up with a very clear comparison because the rules vary from state to state,” said Nicholas Kusnetz, project manager and report for the Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan investigative reporting organization based in Washington, D.C.

Specifically, Illinois earned high marks for internal auditing and providing public access to information, according to the study.

It earned average grades for its campaign finance laws and enforcement and ethics laws and enforcement. Illinois earned low marks for its ethics laws and enforcement governing lawmakers and civil servants.

Among Illinois’ shortcomings cited by the study:

  • Weak Laws. New reform laws enacted following the ethical lapses of impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich contained loopholes. While voters can recall a governor, lawmakers can’t be recalled. And unlike most other states, the Illinois Attorney General has no power to empanel a grand jury to investigate corruption.
  • Weak Enforcement. Lawmakers are on an honor system for reporting their own conflicts of interest. Moreover, the legislative leaders appoint the Illinois Legislative Inspector General and members of the Legislative Ethics Commission. And lawmakers face no sanctions for having conflicts of interest.
  • Weak Transparency. Lawmakers need to report outside income exceeding $5,000, but they don’t need to list the source. The Illinois Secretary of State holds financial disclosure records but no state agency audits the reports.

“Illinois’ ethics laws don’t have any teeth,” said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “Lawmakers say, ‘trust me.’ That’s not an ethics policy.”

Double-dipping Allowed

The variables in each state’s ethics laws make it difficult to identify “best practices.” But there are methods to examine how Illinois’ ethics guidelines for legislators measure up to other states.

Consider outside income. No state prohibits lawmakers from earning income in the private sector, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And all but three states, Idaho, Michigan and Vermont, require lawmakers to disclose outside income, according to the organization.

Restrictions grow tighter when it comes to state lawmakers holding more than one public sector job.

Thirty-three states prohibit lawmakers from holding a second job funded with taxpayer money, such as a mayor or county official.

Illinois is one of 16 states that allow a lawmaker to hold a second public sector job. The only prohibition is that the lawmaker can’t be on the clock with both jobs at the same time. A mayor, for example, shouldn’t be paid for that job while she is serving as a legislator in Springfield, according to the law.

However, the guidelines call for self-enforcement so it’s up the lawmaker to self-report any conflicts.

So when Madigan responded to Rauner’s charge, he outlined his personal written code of conduct, which reads:

“No state benefit is ever offered to gain a client, and any potential client who seeks a state benefit is not accepted. If a client of the law office requests my intercession with a state agency, I refuse. If a client of the law office expresses an interest in legislation such as to create a conflict of interest, I recuse myself from consideration of the bill.”

Experts say that’s giving public officials a lot of leeway to determine their own behavior.

“You’re basically relying on the honor system,” Redfield said. “In these cases, it’s not a conflict of interest, but a conflict of commitment. If you are a mayor and a state legislator, how are you splitting up your time? Can you really do two jobs?” Redfield said.

Variances in salaries and time requirements also make comparisons difficult.

Illinois is one of 10 states with the equivalent of “full-time” legislators, those who devote 80 percent or more of their time to lawmaking duties, according to the National Conferences of State Legislatures.

Most states elect part-time legislators who may spend only one month a year at the state capitol.

“Obviously, you wouldn’t expect a rancher or farmer to give up his or her job when they only spend a month in session,” said Mark Quiner, director of ethics in government for the National Conferences of State Legislatures.

Compensation also is a consideration.

Illinois legislators make a base salary of $67,836, and the state is among 10 nationwide where lawmakers earn $49,000 or more annually, according to the National Conferences of State Legislatures. California lawmakers earn the most, bringing in $90,526 annually.

New Mexico lawmakers receive no salary, while legislators in New Hampshire receive $100 a year. Most states do offer lawmakers per diem allowances of $100-$150. Illinois pays $111 in per diem expenses.

“There is an element of taking a vow of poverty if you’re elected to the legislature in some of these states,” said Nicholas Katers, state desk editor for Ballotpedia, a non-partisan encyclopedia and research organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.

New York State

Forward-thinking scholars and researchers have some ideas for how Illinois and other states can reduce the instances of lawmaker conflicts of interest.

An increasingly popular proposal would be to prohibit or limit the ability for lawmakers to earn outside income. This idea has gained the most traction in states where lawmakers earn a respectable salary.

In New York, for instance, separate corruption charges brought against the Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader has led to calls for state lawmakers, who earn $79,500 a year, to be prohibited from earning outside income.

Similarly, a bill in the Pennsylvania General Assembly would limit lawmakers from earning more than 35 percent of their legislative salaries, which average $85,000 a year.

But since they were introduced earlier this year, neither proposal has gained traction. And no such proposal has surfaced in Illinois.

“I would suspect that these ideas were brought forward for political purposes, more than anything,” said David Melton, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Another popular idea is to raise lawmaker salaries to the point where the need for additional outside income is reduced.

“The level of salary has an impact on the pool of people interested in the job,” said Redfield of the University of Illinois at Springfield. “You don’t want to have a salary too low where you only attract people who don’t have a job, or only people who are too wealthy and don’t need the money. If you have a legislative salary of, say, $100,000 a year, you probably would attract a larger talent pool.”

Others believe the state should continue to strengthen existing ethics laws.

Proposals include penalties for lawmakers who have documented conflicts of interest, and the ability for voters to recall corrupt lawmakers.
Some believe Illinois should follow other states and allow the attorney general to call a grand jury to investigate corruption allegations.

And others support strengthening disclosure requirements so lawmakers must list the sources of outside income.

“Strengthening our ethics laws is something we need to continue to push for,” Melton said. “We need to continue to push for openness and transparency in our state government.”

John Slania is a regular BGA freelance contributor who often writes about policy issues.

A version of this story also appears in The State Journal-Register.