Greising: Not a Lot To Celebrate in Springfield’s Latest Stab at ‘Reform’

Unless more vigorous and committed leadership emerges, the "first step" from this legislative session may lead only to another cul-de-sac on the path toward cleaning up Illinois government.

Illinois State Capitol (Éovart Caçeir)

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

Of course it was going to turn out this way.

In the wake of perhaps the most ambitious federal corruption investigation in Illinois history, the stage seemed set for powerful ethics reforms. And a first-term governor and new leadership in both houses of the Legislature seemed to augur well for cleaner, more accountable government.

But then, this was Illinois.

In a case of optimism triumphing over experience, the forces of reform kept pushing for the best. But the case for sweeping reforms never stood a chance.

Lawmakers called their ethics bill "a good first step" toward bigger reforms. But the measure on its way to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's desk for signature merely nibbles around the edges of reform.

Former lawmakers now must wait six months—a full half-year!—before they can lobby their former colleagues. The legislative inspector general can launch investigations of lawmakers. Economic disclosure forms require more, um, disclosure.

Sounds good at first.

The trouble is, there is always a "but" attached to each reform that sucks away its impact.

The new "cooling off" period before former lawmakers can become lobbyists is a first for Illinois.

But 36 states require ex-lawmakers to wait a year before lobbying, and 12 states require two years.

The ethics bill erases a "Mother May I?" provision that required the legislative inspector general to get approval from the state's Legislative Ethics Commission merely to launch an investigation.

But the IG still lacks subpoena power. And the commission's approval is needed before the IG can publish any findings, too.

That won't eliminate the kind of problems identified by former interim Inspector General Julie Porter. In testimony last year, Porter asserted that one investigation of wrongdoing and one referral to the state attorney general were quashed by the Legislative Ethics Commission, which itself is made up of lawmakers.

Then there is the question of disclosures of economic interest.

Old hands in Springfield derisively refer to the existing economic disclosure forms as "N/A N/A Forms." That's because many lawmakers fill them out, top to bottom, by responding "Not Applicable" to questions about potential conflicts of interest.

The new forms have more stringent disclosure requirements.

But, as Alisa Kaplan of advocacy group Reform for Illinois noted in April testimony, a lawmaker earning $1,200 from a client may have a manageable conflict, while one earning $1 million from such a company likely will not. The conflicts should be differentiated, as Chicago and many states require, so the public can draw conclusions about their potential to corrupt.

In addition to half-measures of reform, the ethics bill fails by ignoring some major issues altogether.

There are no specific, enforceable rules requiring lawmakers to disclose conflicts of interest on matters before the Legislature. There also is no requirement for recusal from voting in cases where a lawmaker has a conflict of interest.

The Illinois attorney general should be empowered to form statewide grand juries, but isn't under the new bill. New limitations on lawmakers lobbying local governments across the state are welcome. But an outright ban on lawmaker-lobbyists would be far better.

Then there's the end to a deplorable tradition. The new bill would ban lawmakers from holding fundraisers in Springfield on the night before the legislative session.

Well, duh. Some conflicts are so obvious, it's amazing they weren't illegal before this. Now, finally, the legislative equivalent of a wedding "money dance" will finally come to an end—eliminating a crass reminder each year that too much of government in Illinois still is up for sale.

Be careful of the lawmakers' claims that the ethics bill that passed the Senate was a good "first step." We learned this year that no one in the Legislature—not in leadership, not in the rank and file—is determined to pursue material reform. Pritzker himself told Crain's he's disappointed by the ethics bill, but he declined to say what he would add and seems likely to sign it anyway.

Unless more vigorous and committed leadership emerges, the "first step" from this legislative session may lead only to another cul-de-sac on the path toward reform.