Illinois corruption package is light on needed reforms
Senate Bill 4, the likely vehicle for ethics reform in Springfield, offers slight improvements over the Madigan era. But if Illinois is serious about ending its culture of corruption, key points need more muscle.
It’s pretty clear Illinois has a corruption problem and needs ethics reforms, but the proposal likely emerging as Springfield tries to fix itself needs to be bulked up – especially on some key points – to make meaningful change.
Democrats’ omnibus package, Senate Bill 4, is most likely to become law with a Democratic supermajority in the General Assembly. Republicans have their own omnibus proposal filed in Senate Bill 1350, but its future is sketchy.
SB 4 has provisions that small moves in the right direction. It establishes more detailed financial disclosure requirements for Illinois lawmakers and prohibits lawmakers from lobbying other governmental entities. However, it also lacks crucial reforms that Illinois needs to implement if it is to move past its culture of corruption.
Significant omissions include failing to adequately empower the Office of the Legislative Inspector General to investigate lawmakers, and neglecting to impose any meaningful restrictions on the revolving door that lets General Assembly members go from lawmaker one day to lobbying their former peers the next.
What is in Senate Bill 4?
SB 4 does a couple of things right. It includes an expanded list of questions on the statements of economic interest that lawmakers must file disclosing information about their financial connections. With lawmakers on the honor system when it comes to conflicts of interests, these statements are how the public might discern when politicians have a conflict with any particular piece of legislation. Even so, those statements are woefully inadequate, and are often derisively referred to as “none” sheets for that common answer to the form’s questions.
Currently, the statements of economic interest leave big holes in what a lawmaker must disclose. For example, they only need to disclose the identity of income sources when they serve as an “officer, director, associate, partner, or proprietor, or served in any advisory capacity” and in other cases only the “nature of” services rendered for income and the “nature of” the entity to which the filer rendered them. A filer’s capital assets only need to be disclosed if he or she realized capital gains in the past year, and an ownership interest only needs to be identified if the company does business in the State of Illinois. The interests of family members other than spouses are not currently considered in the statements.
SB 4 expands and simplifies the requirements for lawmakers to disclose each source of income above $1,200, each asset worth more than $5,000 and creditors holding debt above $5,000. This includes assets jointly held and debts jointly owed with the lawmaker’s spouse or minor children. The new statements would also require lawmakers to reveal if their spouse was the employee, contractor, or officeholder of a unit of government within the preceding year, as well as revealing their economic relations or familial relationships with lobbyists. It does not further require lawmakers to disclose the interests of their close family members beyond that, however. Those thresholds would be indexed for inflation.
The bill also prohibits lawmakers, executive branch constitutional officers and elected officials of units of local governments from being employed as lobbyists while holding office, but only if the lobbying firm is registered to lobby the General Assembly or the executive branch of Illinois. This loophole is mirrored in the prohibitions of local government officials from lobbying other units of government. Furthermore, it prohibits local governments in Illinois from establishing their own lobbying regulations inconsistent with SB 4. These provisions in SB 4 would allow members a loophole that would be closed by the GOP-sponsored SB 1350, which bars members of the General Assembly from lobbying for compensation in the state of Illinois, period.
The need for this provision should be clear: there is an obvious conflict of interest in having lawmakers lobby units of local government or executive agencies that could affect that lawmaker’s votes in the General Assembly. To a lesser extent, the same applies to local government officials and executive agency officials lobbying the General Assembly. SB 4 needs to be amended to close the loopholes that allow lawmakers to lobby other units of government.
SB 4 also places restrictions on certain appointed officials and nominees from serving as the officer of a political candidate or campaign committee, and it prohibits virtual fundraising from Sangamon County the day before, during, and the day after the General Assembly is in session.
What is missing?
There are glaring omissions in SB 4, and some of the language could mislead by giving the appearance of serious reforms.
For example, the bill imposes a “cooling off” period for lawmakers and executive branch officers leaving office to become lobbyists. But the cooling off period is set to within six months or the remainder of the officer’s or lawmaker’s term. The language does not specify that the cooling off period must be the longer of the two, which means a member could conceivably still leave the General Assembly at the end of their term and become a registered lobbyist the next day. By contrast, most states with revolving door laws require a cooling off period of one or two years. The GOP-sponsored bill SB 1350 includes a cooling off period of one year, a period in line with the rest of the country.
Another way SB 4 falls short in its current form is the lack of independence given to the Legislative Inspector General. Currently, the inspector general cannot open investigations, issue subpoenas, or, in most cases, publish a summary report of findings of wrongdoing by a public official without the approval of a commission made up of the lawmakers the inspector is tasked with holding accountable. And with four Democrats and four Republicans on the Legislative Ethics Commission, the commission can block an investigation on a party-line vote. Any omnibus bill should free the inspector general to conduct investigations into complaints and publish any findings of wrongdoing without seeking permission to do so. SB 4 makes the inspector general a full-time paid position, but ignores the pressing need for the office’s independence.
By contrast, the GOP-sponsored ethics bill gives the inspector general needed authority to open investigations and issue subpoenas. It does not give the inspector authority to publish findings of wrongdoing, but it does go farther in reforming the Legislative Ethics Commission. SB 1350 would establish a requirement that members of the ethics commission may not be state employees or officials, holders of partisan elected or political party office, officers or employees of a political committee or campaign, or members of the General Assembly, freeing the commission from the influence of the lawmakers it is supposed to be monitoring. Regardless of the composition of the commission, though, any omnibus bill should at the least give the Office of the Legislative Inspector General the independence it needs to conduct investigations and publish its findings.
The GOP-sponsored competitor to SB4 also prohibits lobbyists from serving as the officer or candidate of a candidate’s political committee and expands the authority of the statewide grand jury to investigate public corruption crimes. These are reforms worth considering but not included in SB 4.
In case state lawmakers needed a reminder, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago gave them a stark one May 26 by indicting Tim Mapes, former chief of staff for ousted Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. Mapes was charged with lying to a federal grand jury investigating Madigan’s relationship to the top Madigan confidant indicted in the ComEd bribery scandal. The list of corruption indictments includes two state senators and two state representatives, but is much longer than that.
Giving special treatment to a few at the expense of the many comes with real costs. Nearly 79,000 more Illinoisans live in poverty than otherwise would were Illinois to lower its corruption rate to the U.S. average, according to an Illinois Policy Institute analysis. Corruption cost each Illinoisan $830 between 2000 and 2018.
SB 4 does some things right, but if Illinois is to shake off its culture of corruption, ethics legislation needs to include a meaningful revolving door law and to empower the legislative inspector general to conduct probes free of control by those being held accountable. When this happens, the public can be more confident the state is making a break with the Madigan era corruption that cost it so very much.