Illinois lawmakers operate under honor system on conflicts of interest
Prairie State politicians are allowed to determine when they have a conflict of interest, and whether they should recuse themselves from voting or disclose a conflict. HB 4041 would change that.
For years, Illinois politicians have been on the honor system when it comes to dealing with conflicts of interest. But a new bill filed by state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana – House Bill 4041 – would hold lawmakers accountable by requiring them to disclose conflicts with a particular bill and to recuse themselves from voting on that bill.
Since former state Rep. Luis Arroyo was charged with bribery related to his lobbying business, Illinois state and local lawmakers have increasingly begun to recognize the need to prevent and punish lawmakers operating under blatant conflicts of interest. Developments include:
- Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan acknowledged he did not know why it was not already illegal for lawmakers to also lobby.
- The Chicago City Council recently banned state lawmakers from lobbying the city government.
- State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, filed Senate Bill 2314 to end the revolving door from lawmaker to lobbyist, requiring a two-year cooling off period before a former lawmaker can be employed as a lobbyist.
Lobbying by current and newly retired lawmakers is not the only source of conflicts of interest. Other forms of employment, ownership and investments also have the potential to pose a conflict if a bill in the General Assembly substantially affects those specific interests.
Illinois is ranked as the second-most corrupt state in the country. Still, the state lets lawmakers decide for themselves whether they have conflicts of interest and gives them discretion whether to disclose those conflicts or recuse themselves from voting. If a lawmaker has a personal, family or client legislative interest in a measure, under current Illinois law he or she should “consider the possibility of removing the interest creating the conflict situation.” If the lawmaker determines that is not feasible, he or she should “consider the possibility of abstaining” from the official action. Furthermore, “if he does abstain, he should disclose that fact to his respective legislative body.”
Politicians are essentially on the honor system for revealing conflicts regarding specific bills and recusing themselves from a self-interested vote. And while Illinois does require lawmakers to file general financial disclosure statements, the requirements don’t require a lawmaker to declare when he or she faces a conflict of interest before taking a vote.
By contrast, 26 states require all members of the legislature to disclose conflicts of interest for each measure where such a conflict arises. And 27 states prohibit all members of the legislature from voting at all in the case of a conflict.
At least 36 states have constitutional, statutory, or parliamentary provisions that require lawmakers to either disclose their conflict of interest for each measure where such a conflict arises, or to recuse themselves from voting on the matter, according to Illinois Policy Institute research. Several states impose penalties, and even criminal sanctions, for violating these requirements.
For example, Arizona requires that lawmakers both disclose a conflict of interest before voting and refrain from voting where there is a conflict. It has one of the harshest penalties: Intentional violation of this requirement is a Class 6 felony punishable by up to 1.5 years in prison.
Meanwhile, Illinois has no penalty for lawmakers who vote on a measure in which they have a conflict of interest.
A review of the transcripts from the 100th General Assembly shows at least 15 cases in which lawmakers explicitly disclosed they had potential conflicts before voting “present” on a bill. And because there is no requirement, voters could be forgiven for wondering how many times their lawmakers failed to disclose they had a private financial interest in a piece of legislation, much less cast a vote on one.
HB 4041 would change that. The bill requires a member of the General Assembly to declare a conflict of interest before taking any official action and request recusal from voting on a matter if three conditions are met:
1) the lawmaker or a member of the lawmaker’s immediate family has a financial interest in a business, investment, real property, lease or other enterprise,
2) the interest is substantial, and
3) the effect on that interest of the action to be voted upon is greater than the effect on the general public of the state.
HB 4041 defines an interest as “substantial” if it meets or exceeds thresholds for lawmaker financial disclosure that are already part of Illinois law.
Those thresholds include but are not limited to:
- Income in excess of $1,200 in the preceding calendar year from any professional organization or individual professional practice in which the lawmaker is an officer, director, associate, partner or proprietor
- Fees exceeding $5,000 in the preceding calendar year for professional services
- Capital gains exceeding $5,000 in the preceding calendar year
- Gifts exceeding $500 in the preceding calendar year.
Passing HB 4041 would bring Illinois in line with the majority of states. It would establish and enforce requirements for lawmakers to disclose any conflicts of interest with respect to specific bills and to recuse themselves from voting on legislation where they have a conflict.
In most of the country, that is common sense. In Illinois, it would be a small step toward restoring constituents’ faith in their Springfield representation.