An Agenda for Getting Real Reform in Springfield

Real reform can be done, however, politicians in Illinois have made an art of keeping meaningful reform impossibly out of reach.

Springfield, IL Capitol (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Politics may be the art of the possible. But in Illinois, too often, politicians have made an art of keeping meaningful reform impossibly just out of reach.

It happened after Gov. George Ryan went to prison and again after Gov. Rod Blagojevich landed in a federal pen, too. In both cases, there was serious talk of reform, but the efforts broke into pieces and came up far short of original hopes.

We're at risk of letting it happen again.

If ever there were a time for major ethics reform in Illinois, this should be it. Nearly two years into the wide-ranging probe of public corruption across Illinois, eight office holders are charged or have pleaded guilty, and the dragnet keeps growing.

If the cooperation agreement with Commonwealth Edison is to be believed, House Speaker Mike Madigan was the focus of the utility's efforts to get its way in Springfield through a scheme involving jobs, fake jobs, vendor contracts and even a seat on the company's board.

Madigan says he has done nothing wrong, but the feds are still investigating.

The need for reform is evident. History shows that a culture of lax ethics ultimately leads to criminal behavior, so ethics is the place to start in cleaning up state government.

History also shows reform efforts in Illinois quickly run out of steam. The public's attention strays, entrenched insiders block progress, and before we know it, there's too much calm after the storm.

Here's what reformers have to show for their efforts so far: not much.

The Joint Commission on Ethics & Lobbying Reform needed to let a March 31 deadline pass due to COVID-19. But nearly six months past the original deadline, the commission has held no new public hearings and offered no sign of what its proposed reforms will be.

Democrats on the rise, like Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago, Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago and Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake, in mid-August called for sweeping reforms. One is even aimed at leaders targeted or named in federal probes. But there is no sign of progress on any of them yet.

House Republicans initiated a censure process aimed directly at Madigan, but the speaker called it a political stunt, and it does seem unlikely the process will result in any action against him.

In short, there is little sign so far that Springfield is ready for structural reform. Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise. This is Illinois, after all, and no one expected it to be easy.

And that is why those who see the costs of corruption—and believe in the necessity for reform—need to stay in the fight.

The system, and history, have trained us to set low expectations and be grateful for any incremental progress. But we need to reject temptation to settle. Instead, we need to focus, without compromise, on what is right.

My organization, the Better Government Association, on Sept. 9 published an agenda for reform that sets a high bar. It focuses on what is necessary—and sets course for what should be possible if leaders in state government are serious about reform.

The BGA joins calls for prohibiting lawmakers from holding side jobs as lobbyists. Our program goes a step further by requiring registration of so-called "consultants" and "strategic advisers" that have inordinate influence on the legislative process. The ComEd settlement makes the pitfalls of such shady arrangements clear.

The BGA program calls for greater transparency around conflicts of interest and explicit rules about when a lawmaker should recuse because of such conflicts. It reduces the General Assembly's control over the legislative inspector general. It calls for term limits on legislative leaders—no more quarter-century turns as speaker for Madigan and his ilk.

There is no "right" or "wrong" reform proposal. Any step toward more accountable and transparent government is a step forward. But we need to be wary of half-steps, too.

Over the years, half-measures have failed to carry us far enough, and the shortcomings have only perpetuated a culture of self-dealing that Illinois simply cannot afford.

The moment demands that we do not settle for half measures. If ever there were a moment for structural reform, this is it. And it's up to the people of Illinois to demand no less.