Illinois ethics reform uncertain after House rejects Pritzker’s amendatory veto

Illinois ethics reform uncertain after House rejects Pritzker’s amendatory veto

Illinois made an important first step in its break with the corrupt practices that defined the legislative process under former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. New ethics rules about lobbying, financial disclosures and the legislative watchdog were passed in the final hours of the session, but the reforms may die after the House rejected a technical change to the legislation by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The Illinois General Assembly on Aug. 31 rejected an amendatory veto to Senate Bill 539, throwing the fate of corruption reform in Illinois into question.

There were some solid advances in the bill, but there was also room for improvement and a promise to keep working on some provisions before Senate Bill 539 takes effect Jan. 1, 2022. The bill was improved from earlier versions and incorporated many measures advocated by Illinois Policy.

The governor’s amendatory veto made a minor technical fix.

Because the governor vetoed the bill, both Houses of the General Assembly had to approve the changes. The Senate did approve the governor’s amendatory veto, but the measure failed in the House, with 59 representatives voting to approve the change, 35 voting to reject the change, and 24 representatives casting no vote on the measure.

The General Assembly now has less than two weeks to take up the corruption package again, otherwise it will die. That means Illinois politicians will have reneged on their promise to tackle the state’s rampant public corruption problem.

The bill bars lawmakers, executive constitutional officers, and elected officials of units of local governments from being employed as lobbyists while in office under certain circumstances. It also mandates lawmakers must wait six months before becoming lobbyists if they leave in the middle of a term, although they can lobby a new General Assembly immediately after their terms expire. The Illinois Policy Institute has recommended at least a year cooling-off period between leaving office and lobbying to bring Illinois in line with other states.

The legislative inspector general now has power to open investigations into complaints without the prior approval of lawmakers on the ethics commission. Probes must begin within a year of the incident. The same change was made regarding the executive branch’s inspector general, allowing investigations without prior approval of its oversight panel, but that line was removed by Pritzker’s veto, as the executive inspector general could already initiate investigations without approval under current state law.

Lawmakers are required to provide expanded financial disclosure documents, however they are not required to disclose the interests of close family members except for those assets and liabilities held jointly with the filer. The Institute recommends a provision to include immediate family members to avoid loopholes that could allow lawmakers to hide conflicts of interest. Assets and debts worth at least $10,000 and income sources over $7,500 must be disclosed under the bill, with inflationary adjustments every five years.

The ethics bill is a start at changing Illinois’ culture of corruption, ranked the nation’s second-worst. That distinction keeps nearly 79,000 people in poverty and cost each Illinoisan $830 from 2000 to 2018.

Illinois Policy Institute recommendations for additional reforms:

  • At least a one-year buffer between the time a lawmaker leaves office and becomes a lobbyist. This would create a longer “cooling-off” period and bring the lobbying restrictions of Illinois more in line with other states.
  • The restraints on the legislative inspector general should be further loosened to empower them to issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses without seeking permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission. Inspectors should also be able to publish their findings of wrongdoing without the consent of commissioners. Lawmakers should also consider the recommendations of inspector general Carol Pope, who recently cited the insufficient reforms in the omnibus package as a reason for resigning. Pope urged removing the new restrictions on the kinds of misconduct the inspector general can investigate and adding a ninth member – a non-lawmaker – to the Legislative Ethics Commission to avoid the partisan deadlock that can stymie investigations.
  • A provision to include the financial interests of filers’ immediate family members on statements of economic interest.
  • Eliminate loopholes that would allow lawmakers to lobby other units of government. One such loophole is the bill language only restricts lawmakers from being employed as lobbyists for a firm registered to lobby the unit of government they serve. This would tend to bar lawmakers from working as lobbyists for big firms, but they could easily open their own shops and get around that restriction.

State lawmakers pledged reforms after ousting former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan in January. Madigan’s legacy of backroom deals and corruption is still being probed by federal investigators, with his former chief of staff indicted May 26 in connection with the ComEd bribery scandal.

“Voters have demanded changes to reform public corruption that stop lawmakers from playing by different rules than everyone else. The passage of this bill is a start to delivering on the basic anti-corruption measures they deserve,” said Amy Korte, the Institute’s vice president of policy.

“Many components of this ethics package are reforms we have supported for years. Not only should Gov. J.B. Pritzker sign the bill into law, lawmakers should keep finding ways to make Illinois fairer,” Korte said.

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