The BGA's Ethics Agenda: Let’s Get Serious About Ending Corruption in Illinois

Joann Wong / BGA

It’s ethics reform season in Illinois and as usual, we can thank the U.S. Attorney. 

By mid-August, federal prosecutors had netted a guilty plea from one state senator for accepting bribes to block legislation; charged another senator with ghost payrolling; and charged a state representative, moonlighting as a lobbyist, with trying to bribe a third senator to support legislation sought by a client. Also caught up in the probe are two Chicago aldermen, two mayors, three political consultants, two developers and the state’s largest utility, Commonwealth Edison. 

ComEd has admitted it corruptly spent at least $150 million to grease legislation favorable to the utility. The person it hoped to influence: Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan has not been charged.

Bribery and pay-to-play are federal crimes. But a lot of questionable behavior by public officials gets a pass under Illinois law. That’s because our state has some of the weakest ethics laws in the nation:

  • There’s no meaningful disclosure of public officials’ potential conflicts of interest. 
  • There’s no requirement for lawmakers to recuse themselves from voting when conflicts arise — or even to disclose the conflict. 
  • It’s OK for lawmakers to have side jobs as lobbyists, getting paid to influence other governments that have business before the General Assembly. 
  • It’s OK for a lawmaker to leave office and go to work as a lobbyist the very next day.
  • The legislative oversight system functions to conceal misconduct, not to police it.

Lax ethics laws are toxic. Time and again, Illinoisans have seen elected representatives use their positions to enrich themselves or their allies while the law just shrugged. This undermines faith in government, reflects unfairly on the entire General Assembly and makes it hard for dedicated public servants to do their work.

Earlier this year, a Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform held hearings to consider changes to five specific laws governing lobbyists, conflicts of interest and legislative conduct. Its work was interrupted by COVID-19, even as the U.S. Attorney plowed ahead. The ever-widening investigation shows there is far more work to be done.

The BGA policy team followed the commission’s work closely and actively lobbied for specific reforms. We also revisited the findings of past ethics commissions, launched in response to previous federal investigations. And we studied the recommendations of current and former legislative inspectors general who have called for stronger ethics laws and more authority to enforce them.

Together, they create a more comprehensive blueprint for reform. 

(Use the links below to skip to each section.)

Lobbying

  • Ban on lobbying by legislators
  • A "cooling-off period" for lawmakers who become lobbyists
  • Expanded lobbyist disclosure requirements
  • Lobbyist definition broadened to capture behind-the-scenes "influencers"

Conflicts of Interest

  • Enhanced statements of economic interest
  • Explicit and enforceable rules about disclosure of conflicts and recusal
  • Uniform rules for constituent casework
  • Reporting of lawmaker contacts about personnel or admissions decisions

Legislative Oversight

  • Greater independence for Legislative Inspector General
  • Restructured Legislative Ethics Commission to correct partisan gridlock
  • Mandatory publishing of founded reports of misconduct 

Checks on Consolidation of Power

  • Term limits for legislative leaders
  • Fair redistricting
  • Special elections for legislative vacancies
  • Rules to trigger a committee vote on blocked bills

Lobbying

When federal prosecutors turned up the heat on rogue lobbyists in Illinois, lawmakers responded by quickly passing legislation requiring greater disclosure of lobbyists’ clients and other transparency measures. It was a good start: The public needs to know who is paying to influence their government. 

But the problems run deeper than disclosure. Elected officials moonlight as lobbyists, leveraging their public positions for private clients. “Shadow” lobbyists dodge disclosure rules by acting as middlemen who consult or strategize instead of lobbying directly. And the General Assembly is largely a lawmaker-to-lobbyist pipeline. None of this is good news for constituents.

Lobbying one government while serving as an elected representative in another (cross-lobbying) is a conflict of interest. Working as a lawmaker when your next job is lobbyist is a conflict of interest, too.  Lobbying your former colleagues in the legislature immediately after leaving office unfairly disadvantages citizens who don’t have the same relationships, effectively selling access to the highest bidder.

CROSS-LOBBYING

Article 2 of the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act (1967) spells out that legislators can’t be paid by outside interests to lobby the General Assembly. But there’s nothing to stop them from outside work as a lobbyist, representing private clients who have business with other levels of government. This practice is sometimes called “cross-lobbying.”

Former Rep. Luis Arroyo, who was registered to lobby the Chicago City Council, is charged with trying to bribe a state senator to support legislation sought by a video gambling client. 

Never mind the attempted bribery allegation — it’s already a crime to offer, pay or accept a bribe. A state lawmaker lobbying the Chicago City Council on behalf of a private client who also has business before the General Assembly still has a handful of conflicts. 

There can be an implied or perceived quid pro quo when a state lawmaker asks the City Council for something. There are all sorts of things Chicago can’t do without help from the General Assembly, after all. 

The lawmaker’s judgment can be compromised when a lobbying client has business with the state legislature. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to worry about whether their elected representative can set aside the interests of a private client and put constituents’ needs first. These conflicts don’t have to lead to attempted bribery in order to be unacceptable.

How to fix it: State lawmakers should be prohibited from lobbying other governments. Lobbyists who are elected officials for other governments shouldn’t be allowed to lobby the state. 

Consider: 

Chicago’s Ethics Ordinance prohibits elected officials or employees from lobbying other units of government. It also prohibits elected officials from other governments from lobbying the city.

REVOLVING DOOR

Illinois is one of only a handful of states with no “revolving door” law to prevent lawmakers from going to work as lobbyists immediately after they leave the legislature. 

Lobbying is an attractive career move — one that can pay far more than a lawmaker’s salary. (At the federal level, it’s so lucrative that nearly two-thirds of the members of Congress who left office in 2017 went on to work as lobbyists or consultants that seek to influence government, according to Public Citizen.)

But what’s good for ex-lawmakers isn’t necessarily good for their ex-constituents.

Lawmakers-turned-lobbyists are able to cash in on their connections to colleagues who remain in office. Their clients are buying privileged access to sitting government officials, in the hope that it will translate into favorable action.

As Jay Young, Executive Director of Common Cause Illinois, told the ethics commission: “It’s human nature to favor those that we already like.”

This access is valuable to those who seek to influence government policy. It gives moneyed clients an advantage over the general public.

The lack of a mandatory “cooling off” period before departing lawmakers can work as lobbyists compromises taxpayer interests while their representative is still in office. The promise (or even the possibility) of a big-bucks job can influence a lawmaker’s public actions, or create the appearance that they’re using their public office to make friends or do favors for a future employer.

Revolving door prohibitions help assure taxpayers that their elected representative isn’t using his or her office to audition for a new job.

Nationwide, mandatory waiting periods generally range from six months to two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2018, Florida voters amended their state constitution to extend the state’s two-year cooling-off period to six years, beginning Dec. 31, 2022.

How to fix it: Departing lawmakers should be required to wait at least two years before working as lobbyists.

Model: Multiple states, including Iowa, Colorado, New York, Louisiana and Kentucky, prohibit lobbying within 2 years after leaving office.

LOBBYIST DISCLOSURE

Lobbying is constitutionally protected as free speech, but money can speak louder than words. That’s why disclosure is important. Citizens should know not just who is paying lobbyists to influence their government, but how much is being spent to do so.

Illinois Public Act 101-0595, passed in the 2019 veto session, requires primary lobbyists to list the clients of contract lobbyists they employ and to disclose any unit of government they lobby. These are solid improvements in transparency.

It also requires them to disclose any elected or appointed office they hold. The new law also requires the Secretary of State to maintain a searchable public database that combines lobbyist disclosure filings, campaign contributions by registered lobbyists and statements of economic interests filed by state officials and employees. 

What more should be done? Lobbyists should disclose how much they are paid. (This was discussed in the fall veto session, but not included in the bill that became law.) Disclosure of lobbyist compensation is required at the federal level and is a requirement in dozens of states, as well as in Chicago and Cook County.

To address concerns that disclosure of rates could lead to competitive disadvantage, compensation could be reported within meaningful ranges. At the federal level, earnings are reported as under $5,000 or as increments rounded to the nearest $10,000.

SHADOW LOBBYING

A shadow lobbyist seeks to influence public policy without registering as a lobbyist. This is so common at the federal level that one study estimates there are as many consultants, strategists and other unregistered arm-twisters as there are registered lobbyists. They avoid registering by exploiting loopholes (federal law requires them to register if they spend at least 20 percent of their time lobbying, for example). In Illinois, “consultants” and “strategic advisers” escape sunlight by avoiding the sort of direct communication spelled out in the Lobbyist Registration Act. “As long as they don’t pick up the phone, they don’t have to register,” Alisa Kaplan, Executive Director of Reform for Illinois, told the ethics commission.


Michael McClain, a key player in House Speaker Mike Madigan’s inner circle and a longtime lobbyist for Commonwealth Edison, announced his retirement in 2016 and hasn’t registered as a lobbyist since. But a WBEZ/Better Government Association investigation found that ComEd paid McClain more than $300,000 for “legal services” in 2017 and 2018.

ComEd said the report was in error and that McClain was paid for “political consulting services.” Federal prosecutors say McClain — identified in court documents as “Individual A” — secured jobs and contracts from ComEd for Madigan associates. The utility admits its intent was to influence the speaker.


How to fix it: Broaden the definition of lobbying to include behind-the-scenes influencers and/or require the firms that employ them to disclose their identities, compensation and clients. 

Model: The American Bar Association suggests that strategic planners, consultants and others involved in professional lobbying campaigns should be classified as “lobbying supporters” and subject to disclosure.

Conflicts of Interest

Illinois needs stronger safeguards to prevent public servants from using their positions for private gain.

Current ethics laws don’t require lawmakers to abstain from decisions in which they have a personal economic interest or to refrain from actions that benefit their friends and associates over other constituents.

DISCLOSURE AND RECUSAL

The rules that govern Illinois lawmakers’ conflicts of interest are vague and voluntary. (You read that right: voluntary.) Coupled with poor disclosure, this leaves taxpayers with no way to know if a conflict exists or whether it’s being handled appropriately — whether lawmakers are representing your interests or theirs, in other words. You don’t have to be a cynic to understand that “trust us” is not sound public policy.

A conflict exists when a lawmaker’s duties place them in a position to participate in or influence a governmental decision from which they stand to benefit (or lose) financially, if that economic interest is different from that of the general public. 

When a conflict arises, most states require lawmakers to disclose it and/or to recuse themselves from debate or vote. In Illinois, it’s the lawmaker’s call.

The Illinois Governmental Ethics Act (1967) contains guidelines to help lawmakers avoid voting or taking other action when they have conflicts of interest, but also states that they are intended “not as rules meant to be enforced.”  

"Where feasible, and taking into account the fact that legislative service is part time, a legislator should avoid accepting or retaining an economic opportunity which presents a substantial threat to his independence of judgment."

and

"When a legislator must take official action on a legislative matter as to which he has a conflict situation created by a personal, family or client legislative interest, he should consider the possibility of eliminating the interest creating the conflict situation. If that is not feasible, he should consider the possibility of abstaining from such official action." 

In other words, a lawmaker’s response to a potential conflict of interest may be governed by whether shedding that conflict creates an unacceptable hardship to said lawmaker. There shouldn’t be any ambiguity here: The public interest comes first.

How to fix it: A lawmaker who has a personal or private interest in a bill should be required to disclose the conflict and abstain from voting. This should be enforced by the Legislative Inspector General and Legislative Ethics Commission — which also means expanding the jurisdiction of the LEC to include the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act. The law should include penalties and mandatory reporting.

Conflicts of interest are a two-way street. The Governmental Ethics Act also includes a set of guidelines for persons who have legislative interests or who are close economic associates of legislators:

"No person with a legislative interest should offer or confer an economic opportunity on a legislator with intent to influence that legislator’s official conduct, or to create good will on the part of the legislator toward any person with a legislative interest. Those in positions of counsel to, or agents of, such persons should restrain them from violation of this ethical principle."

We’re looking at you, ComEd.

Again, this is one of those things “intended only as guides to conduct and not as rules meant to be enforced by penalties."

How to fix it: Again, the rules should be mandatory, not aspirational, and subject to penalties. 

STATEMENTS OF ECONOMIC INTEREST

Robust disclosure is key to evaluating how lawmakers handle conflicts of interest. In Illinois, though, disclosure is a joke. The Statements of Economic Interest that must be filed with the Secretary of State are known as NA-NA forms, because most of the questions can be answered NA, for “not applicable.”

Even when the eight blanks are filled out, the level of detail required is only marginally useful. It’s not especially helpful to know that someone earned more than $5,000 last year working for a law firm, for example. To reveal potential conflicts, the reports need to show how much income a lawmaker is earning and from what sources.

Some states require filers to report income within ranges, the most detailed being New York, which starts with 0-$1,000 and continues: $1,000-$5,000, $5,000-$20,000, $20,000-$50,000, $50,000-$75,000, all the way up to $10 million. 

It’s possible to highlight potential conflicts of interest by reporting business or client categories or aggregating income within those categories. (For example: Lawmaker A made $55,000 from three real estate clients last year.) Ranges, aggregates and business categories provide a clearer picture of the filer’s financial stakes while still allowing some privacy for their clients. Alabama’s statements strike a good balance, providing ample relevant detail while maintaining a degree of client confidentiality.

Some states require filers to report if their business interests have paid staff lobbyists. Illinois requires them to report any “close economic association,” with a lobbyist, which is less helpful. (The Illinois form asks the lobbyist’s name, employer and the cause for which they lobby, but doesn’t reveal where the lawmaker’s interests might intersect.)

How to fix it: An early version of SB1639, sponsored in late 2019 by Rep. Greg Harris, contained some changes to economic interest statements that were tabled for later discussion. They included disclosure of some debtors and creditors (including amounts) and types of gifts, greater  clarity about reportable assets and relationships with lobbyists, and better reporting of categories of income sources. 

HB 3954, sponsored by Rep. Jim Durkin, would revise the Statement of Economic Interests requirements to include detailed reporting similar to that required of Illinois judges.

Consider: Some states require disclosure of financial interest in state-regulated industries such as gambling (Louisiana), utilities (Alabama) or mining (West Virginia). 

EQUITABLE CONSTITUENT SERVICE

Elected officials at all levels often are asked to intervene on behalf of constituents, helping them access government services, navigate bureaucracies or resolve individual problems.

It’s fine for a lawmaker to contact a local government to help a constituent secure a service that is available to any other citizen — fixing a streetlight is an easy example. It’s less clear when a lawmaker puts a thumb on the scale to effect a policy change or influence a personnel or admissions decision. Better to urge “full and fair consideration” of a constituent’s application than to advocate for a particular outcome.


In 2009, the Chicago Tribune revealed that the University of Illinois maintained a special admissions track for well-connected applicants. Hundreds of them got special consideration thanks to political interventions. More than half of those were pushed by state lawmakers — including House Speaker Mike Madigan, then-Senate President John Cullerton; Tom Cross and Christine Radogno, who were then House and Senate minority leaders, respectively; and Sen. Ed Maloney, then chairman of the Higher Education Committee. 

Speaker Madigan sponsored 43 applicants in five years, many of them relatives of campaign donors. His spokesman said he was "only responding to constituent requests."


In a 2014 letter to lawmakers, Legislative Inspector General Tom Homer suggested the casework rules that apply to members of the U.S. House of Representatives could serve as a model for the General Assembly, beginning with the principle that “a member’s obligations are to all constituents equally.” Among the guidelines are that recommendations or endorsements should be in writing; similar requests should be treated similarly; and requests should not include direct or implied suggestions of favoritism or reprisal.

How to fix it: Adopt uniform rules for constituent casework

Model: Congressional House Ethics Manual, pages 299-323

PATRONAGE 

Awarding jobs, promotions, etc. based on relationships instead of merit is unfair to those who don’t have such connections. It also cheats taxpayers by excluding candidates who might be more qualified.

In Rutan v. Republican Party (1990), the U.S. Supreme Court said it’s unconstitutional to consider political affiliation or support in most public employment decisions. But the Rutan decision doesn’t prohibit legislators from making recommendations to the agencies that make those decisions.


Lawmakers weren’t shy about pressuring the Metra commuter rail system to hire or promote their friends and family members. Decades of political interference in personnel decisions were documented by a state task force after Metra CEO Alex Clifford said he was forced out for resisting patronage requests from House Speaker Mike Madigan, Rep. Luis Arroyo and others. 

The 2014 task force report said Madigan didn’t just recommend candidates — "he in effect decided they were hired" (page 51).


Again, politicians defend this sort of pressure as “constituent service,” even though most of the “constituents” were political allies. Public outcry, however, led to the resignations of six Metra trustees.

But Legislative IG Homer could find no violations of the state’s ethics laws. In a statement to the media, he pointed this out, adding that closing his investigation “does not constitute a good housekeeping seal of approval or a best practices award.” 

“Although I can recommend new laws to address what I believe to be inappropriate conduct by legislators, enforcement actions are limited to violations of existing laws and rules,” he wrote.

How to fix it: Require reporting of ex-parte contacts by lawmakers. The backlash from the Metra and U of I scandals caused both to adopt their own rules to document and report such contacts with lawmakers. In 2014, LIG Homer pointed out that state agencies already are required to document communications from lawmakers related to regulatory, licensing, investment and other matters. “That same light should shine on admissions and personnel communications,” he wrote. He recommended adopting a uniform, mandatory requirement for all state agencies and universities.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission (2009) recommended a firm policy of non-interference in government hiring, except for positions that are exempt from anti-patronage rules. 

HB3955, sponsored by Rep. Jim Durkin, would require public documentation of lawmaker communications with any state agency re contracts. 

Consider: The ongoing federal investigation suggests rules are needed to capture similar contacts between lawmakers and regulated industries such as utilities and gambling.

Legislative Oversight

Current ethics laws provide few consequences for lawmaker misconduct. This is partly because the rules are left to individual lawmakers to interpret and apply as they see fit, as discussed earlier. To promote ethical behavior, the General Assembly must pass stronger and more explicit laws, including penalties. In tandem with those changes, the legislative oversight system must be strengthened and reshaped.

A DYSFUNCTIONAL SYSTEM

Let’s look first at the relationship between the Legislative Inspector General and the Legislative Ethics Commission.

The Legislative Inspector General was created in 2003 as part of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act. Three people have held the job since then (one on an interim basis), and all three have complained publicly that the office is broken. Their pleas for reform have not inspired change.

What’s wrong with the current model? The LIG lacks the political and operational independence to do the job. Unlike her counterparts in the executive branch, she can’t launch (or broaden) an investigation, can’t issue subpoenas, can’t do anything meaningful — including publish a finding of misconduct against a legislator — without permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission.

The Legislative Ethics Commission has eight members —  two each chosen by the House speaker, House minority leader, Senate president and Senate minority leader. Though the leaders are allowed to appoint members of the public, the commission regularly includes eight lawmakers, four from each party. So the commission has a fox-guards-henhouse organizational structure and a built-in partisan deadlock.

The upshot is that if the LIG wants to investigate potential wrongdoing by a lawmaker, a group of fellow lawmakers — proxies for caucus leaders — can kill it at the front end or bury the findings at the back end. 

(By contrast, the Executive Ethics Commission consists of nine members — no more than five from the same political party — appointed by the governor and four other statewide elected officials. The Executive Inspector General does not need permission to investigate, subpoena or publish findings.)

Lawmakers defend the LEC configuration as necessary to protect them from politically motivated attacks, but in fact it shields them from accountability. There have been only two published findings of misconduct by a lawmaker. Past and present LIGs report that the LEC blocked publication of others. 


The state’s first Legislative Inspector General, Thomas Homer, wasn’t shy about pointing out deficiencies in the ethics laws meant to check lawmaker conflicts of interest. In a 2011 letter to the General Assembly, he called the voluntary legislative Code of Conduct “weak medicine indeed” and said it should be mandatory, with penalties. He also recommended amending the required Statements of Economic Disclosure to mirror those required of judges. Nothing happened. 

Weeks before he left the job in 2014, Homer again wrote to lawmakers, recommending specific laws — “inspired by actual cases that I have investigated” — to address patronage and conflicts of interest and to strengthen the authority of the LIG. 

Citing “the current inability of the Legislative Inspector General to address alleged and recurring conflicts of interest,” he urged lawmakers to “act swiftly to enable these provisions.” 

Instead, they left the job vacant for three years.


How to fix it:  

Empower an independent LIG, with full authority to open investigations, issue subpoenas and publish findings of misconduct and a guaranteed minimum budget. The Illinois Reform Commission (2009) recommended the LIG’s budget be set at no less than 0.1 percent of the General Assembly budget.

The Legislative Ethics Commission should not be made up exclusively of lawmakers; it should include members appointed by entities outside the General Assembly and should be structured so that a partisan tie isn’t the default vote. Some examples:

  • The Legislative Ethics Commission could include an even number of commissioners appointed by majority and minority leaders and an odd number of additional members chosen from outside the legislature. The tiebreaker member(s) could be chosen by a blue ribbon panel consisting of, for example, one member designated by each political party and a third chosen together by the deans of three Illinois law schools. 
  • The partisan members of the commission could choose the tiebreaker member(s) the same way they choose the LIG. (The 2003 Ethics Act says the LIG “shall be appointed without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability” and subject to a three-fifths vote of both houses.)

Alternatively, a commission made up of four Democrats and four Republicans should require a majority vote to decline to investigate or publish, instead of to move forward.

Also: The Legislative Ethics Commission must be given jurisdiction to enforce the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act (1967), which covers lawmaker conduct and conflicts of interest. While the LIG is charged with investigating alleged violations of the act, the LEC has no power to sanction violators.

TRANSPARENCY

Lawmakers who commit misconduct are perversely shielded from accountability by the oversight system.

If the LIG concludes a violation has occurred, she files a “founded” report with the Legislative Ethics Commission. If a finding against a legislative employee results in suspension of three or more days or termination, the report must be made public. Otherwise, it’s up to the Legislative Ethics Commission to decide whether to publish a finding. 

Since lawmakers are not subject to suspension/termination (or any consequences, except in the case of sexual harassment), the commission always has discretion. It takes five votes out of eight to publish. And remember: The LEC is made up of four Democrats and four Republicans.

The reports that are published are opaque and inaccessible. They are housed on the General Assembly’s web site, displayed only as links without identifying information, and are non-searchable PDF files. Quarterly reports filed by the LIG  and the LEC contain potentially useful data also presented in ways that impede transparency. 


Since 2003, only two findings of misconduct against lawmakers have been published to the commission’s web page

In 2012, Sen. Suzi Schmidt, committed conduct unbecoming of a legislator by “permitting public display of her domestic discord” and using her public position to try to influence Lake County police called to the scene. 

In 2018, Sen. Ira Silverstein committed conduct unbecoming of a legislator through inappropriate communications with a victims’ rights advocate with whom he was collaborating on legislation.

Julie Porter, who served as interim LIG from November 2017 through February 2019, said the Legislative Ethics Commission refused to publish her finding of misconduct by another lawmaker. Another investigation led to a complaint filed by the state Attorney General, Porter said, but the commission “buried” it. 


How to fix it:

  • An LIG’s findings of misconduct should be published, period. To make this reform meaningful, the legislative Code of Conduct must be more explicit — and mandatory. When compliance is voluntary, there are no violations to disclose, but this doesn’t necessarily signal stellar ethical behavior.

Model: The Office of Congressional Ethics publishes all referrals to the House Committee on Ethics, along with recommendations. 

  • Published reports of the LIG and LEC should be displayed in a user-friendly, searchable format. 

Model: Illinois Executive Ethics Commission founded reports

Checks on Consolidation of Power

As mentioned earlier, the scope of legislation considered by the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform is limited to changes in five specific laws. Meaningful amendments to those laws would represent real progress, but there is much more to do.

In this section, we’ll discuss reforms that prioritize voters over politicians. In most cases, these have been recommended by previous task forces or other reform groups. 

TERM LIMITS FOR LEGISLATIVE LEADERS

Friends and foes alike are cowed by House Speaker Michael Madigan’s iron-fisted command over state politics. As the longest-serving speaker in Illinois history and chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, he controls not just which bills pass his chamber, but the boundaries of legislative districts and the distribution of campaign funds. This enables him to lean on public agencies to grant jobs, raises, promotions and other favors to political allies. Think: General Assembly scholarships, admissions to the University of Illinois, jobs at Metra or the Illinois Department of Transportation. A 2014 Chicago Tribune story found hundreds of government employees at all levels with ties to the speaker. 

In 2009, the Illinois Reform Commission noted that voters don’t elect or influence the selection of House speaker and other legislative leaders, and “perpetual occupancy of these positions tends to give disproportionate power to a few politicians. This concentration of power disenfranchises the average voter, leading them to believe that without the ear of a select few politicians, their opinion effectively goes unheard. Moreover, these leaders are able to determine the outcome of legislative races by controlling party funds, which could enable them to exchange campaign and other political support for legislative votes.”

This is not how democracy is supposed to work. Illinois voters are cheated by state laws that accidentally or on purpose serve to consolidate the power of individuals or parties. 

Laws shouldn’t be used to favor incumbency or to facilitate or sustain one party’s electoral advantage. These things should be earned through the ballot box. Instead, the laws are used to double down on those advantages.

How to fix it: Members of the 2009 Illinois Reform Commission were divided about whether to support term limits for lawmakers. Higher turnover keeps senior members from amassing too much power, but at the cost of experience and institutional knowledge. The commission instead recommended limiting the House speaker, Senate president and minority leaders of both houses to 10 years in any one office or 14 years total in two or more offices.

Consider:  To reduce conflicts of interest, the commission also recommended prohibiting the House speaker and Senate president from holding outside jobs, and increasing their salaries to match those of Supreme Court justices.

FAIR REDISTRICTING

One subject that was pointedly off the table for the latest reform commission was redistricting. This is telling. The 2020 U.S. Census will trigger the process of drawing new maps, a high-stakes exercise in which Democrats hold a heavy upper hand. With supermajorities in both houses, they have the votes to pass lopsided maps with zero input from Republicans —  and can even override Gov. Pritzker’s threatened veto. So it’s not surprising that Democrats aren't motivated to make redistricting less partisan.

Funny thing: Illinois voters overwhelmingly support taking redistricting away from lawmakers and assigning it to an independent panel. This support has been consistent for at least the last decade, during which voters tried three times to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to make the change. Though supporters collected more than 500,000 signatures in 2014 and 2016, state Democratic leaders managed to kill the proposals in court. 

Advocates then tried a different route to the ballot — lobbying lawmakers to put the amendment on the ballot themselves. Under the Illinois Constitution, that requires a three-fifths vote of both houses. SJRCA4, filed in 2019, attracted enough sponsors to clear the Senate but never advanced. A new version, SJRCA18 / HJRCA41, was introduced in February 2020. The deadline to place it on the November ballot was May 3.

The principles of independent redistricting are straightforward: Districts should be compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population. They should protect minority representation in accordance with the federal Voting Rights Act, should strive to keep communities intact and should respect political and geographic boundaries as much as possible. Mapmakers should not seek to manipulate the outcome of elections by factoring in past voter behavior or the addresses of incumbents.

That’s all counter to the current system, under which the majority party draws the maps behind closed doors, carefully sorting Republicans and Democrats into misshapen districts that protect their allies and punish their enemies.

It’s often observed that this allows lawmakers to pick their voters instead of the other way around. The maps are so successfully gerrymandered, in fact, that fewer than half of state legislative races are contested in any given election. Voters can’t “throw the bums out.”

How to fix it: Legislative leaders ran out the clock on the constitutional amendment, so there will be no independent commission to draw new maps using 2020 Census figures. That’s still the best long-term remedy. It’s worth noting that lawmakers could have drafted a version that addresses whatever reservations they had about the most recent amendment instead of simply ignoring it. They still can, but not in time for the next round of redistricting.

In the meantime, they could pass a law spelling out guidelines for drawing a fair map using the new numbers. The current law — passed after the 2010 Census, as voters agitated for an amendment — doesn’t require bipartisan participation in the process and doesn’t allow for meaningful public input, especially before a vote on the draft maps.

BLOCKED LEGISLATION

Let’s say you’re among the 64 percent of Illinois voters who want to end partisan gerrymandering and create an independent panel to draw legislative maps. You might have been encouraged that SJRCA4, a proposed constitutional amendment, had 37 sponsors — enough for the measure to pass the Senate. But like countless other measures, SJRCA4 never got a committee hearing, much less a vote. It never left the Assignments Committee. Why not? Because the Democratic majority doesn’t want to surrender control over the maps. What about all those Democratic sponsors, then? It’s a fair question. Those who truly support fair redistricting haven’t been willing or able to buck their leaders by insisting on a vote. For those who don’t support the amendment, there’s no downside to signing on to a reform measure that’s popular with voters — especially if you know it’s never going anywhere.

How to fix it: House and Senate rules should set reasonable requirements to trigger a vote on a measure that has significant bipartisan support. 

  • In 2009, Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission recommended that bills with “a reasonable chance for success” — defined as having 16 sponsors in the House or 8 in the Senate — should be subject to a full committee vote.
  • In the current session, HR 588, sponsored by the House GOP, would require a showing of bipartisan support. It would allow a chief co-sponsor of a measure with five sponsors from each party to call for an up-or-down committee vote.

SPECIAL ELECTIONS FOR LEGISLATIVE VACANCIES

Illinois is one of only four states that allows party leaders to fill vacancies in the legislature. This enables a disturbing pattern: Exiting lawmakers leave office midterm, allowing party insiders to choose a replacement who then has the advantage of running as an incumbent in the next election.

“Granting party bosses a power that most states leave to the voters is just one practice that makes Illinois politics so… special,” writes Edward McClelland in Chicago magazine

In 25 states, those seats are filled by special election, according to Ballotpedia. In other words, those lawmakers are chosen by voters. To join them, Illinois would have to amend its constitution. A major drawback to holding special elections: They’re expensive.

Ten states allow their governors to fill vacancies. This raises questions about the separation of legislative and executive powers, and is especially problematic in states that don’t require the governor to name a replacement of the same party as the departing lawmaker. 

How to fix it: Propose and submit to voters a constitutional amendment to require a special election to fill legislative vacancies  unless the opening occurs within 120 days before a general or primary, in which case the seat would be filled in that election.  

Consider: In Hawaii, where vacancies are filled by appointment of the governor, a proposed constitutional amendment would prohibit those appointees from running for the seat in the next election cycle. This would eliminate the advantages bestowed on unelected interim lawmakers and allow voters to choose the replacement. A similar requirement could apply to Illinois lawmakers who are named by party leaders.

REMOVAL FROM LEADERSHIP IF CHARGED WITH A CRIME

After a federal indictment accused him of taking a ghost payrolling job with the Teamsters union, Sen. Tom Cullerton was removed as chairman of the Labor Committee, though he remained a member. At the same time, he was named chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, meaning he kept his $10,327 stipend. This didn’t sit well with some of his colleagues. There also were calls for Sen. Martin Sandoval to step down as chair of the Transportation Committee after FBI agents raided his home and offices, even though he was not yet charged. Sandoval eventually obliged, then resigned from the Senate. He has since pleaded guilty to taking bribes for shepherding favorable legislation through his committee on behalf of a redlight camera company.

How to fix it: SB2488, sponsored by Sen. Melinda Bush, would force lawmakers who are charged with crimes to give up leadership positions — including House speaker, Senate president, minority leader of either chamber, caucus whips and all committee positions. The bill would not apply to lawmakers who have not been charged.  

An earlier version of this project incorrectly stated that California and New York have cross-lobbying bans that mirror the city of Chicago ordinance. We regret the error.


 

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