Amendment 1 could make it harder to root out corruption in Illinois

Amendment 1 could make it harder to root out corruption in Illinois

With additional protection in the Illinois Constitution, state employees and even public officials could be shielded from discipline and corruption reforms thwarted.

Illinois still has a lot of work to do to clean up its culture of corruption, but that work would become more difficult if voters a year from now pass an amendment to make unions the only special interest protected by the Illinois Constitution.

Illinois is ranked the second-most corrupt state in the country, costing taxpayers $556 million a year. The recent ethics omnibus bill passed into law took a first step toward fixing the corrupt culture, but many advocacy groups criticized the reforms for not going far enough.

The new law failed to empower the Legislative Inspector General to issue subpoenas and publish summary reports of wrongdoing. It actually further restricted the powers of the office, limiting the office’s jurisdiction to matters arising from government service or employment, even while granting the power to initiate investigations without approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission. It was the passage of this bill that led Inspector General Carol Pope to resign, calling the office a “paper tiger.”

Then lawmakers put a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 8, 2022, ballot that would enshrine a fundamental right to collectively bargain for all employees within the state. While advertised as a prohibition on right to work in Illinois, Amendment 1 does much more.

Amendment 1 would elevate government union collective bargaining agreements above Illinois state law. This means any state law that involves employees, whether those laws establish protocols for investigating police misconduct or determine qualifications for teachers, could be voided if it runs counter to union contracts.

More than that, the amendment does not define what constitutes an employee. Depending on how courts interpret the amendment, even managerial employees and public administrators could be considered employees with a fundamental right to collectively bargain. Any collective bargaining agreements could overrule current and future state ethics laws, even related to public officials.

For example, a law that enhanced the Executive Inspector General’s or Legislative Inspector General’s or other government watchdog’s ability to investigate could be voided by the terms of a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by government unions.

And even if public officials or managerial employees are not covered by the amendment, there are other public employees that could be, and will have newly acquired fundamental rights to organize. There is a list of employees currently exempted from the definition of public employee that would have an argument that their exclusion from the right to bargain is a violation of the constitution. That list includes elected officials, executive heads of a department, members of boards or commissions, employees of various inspectors general, commissioners and employees of the Legislative Ethics Commission as well as employees of any agency, board or commission created by the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.

If those employees organized under the amendment, their collective bargaining agreements could trump any rules governing discipline and investigation into allegations of misconduct by those employees, effectively short-circuiting any efforts to heighten oversight of those offices.

Even if the General Assembly passed the most robust ethics reform that advocates asked for, and even if the Legislative Inspector General were given the authority to be truly effective, those reforms could be negotiated away or rendered null in the face of a union collective bargaining agreement. The state constitution would make ethics laws in Illinois readily avoidable by employees with union representation, and the work reformers have put into restoring the state’s image would be diminished.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly took a first step toward addressing corruption in Illinois through ethics reforms. If Amendment 1 passes, it could mean two steps back in the fight against Illinois corruption.

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