Illinois lawmakers tackle balloons, pitchfork fishing, but keep residents in dark on ethics reforms

Illinois lawmakers tackle balloons, pitchfork fishing, but keep residents in dark on ethics reforms

The Illinois General Assembly busies itself with limiting balloon releases and regulating pitchfork fishing along highways when ethics reform is the need in a state with a rich history of corruption.

The Illinois General Assembly has a little over a month to address the culture of corruption it started rejecting when Mike Madigan was ousted as Illinois House speaker after a 36-year reign. But nearly two months into legislative session, lawmakers have prioritized fringe bills ahead of publicly debating one of the state’s most pressing public policy issues: public corruption reform.

On April 21 the Illinois House passed a limit on balloon releases, expecting the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to go after scofflaws who release more than 49 balloons into the air. House Bill 418 will lead to a warning, then a $500 fine, then a $1,000 fine for repeat offenders and for each group of 50 balloons if the bill becomes law.

On April 22 the House was nearly unanimous in its desire to stop people from fishing along highways using pitchforks, spears, bows and slingshots to catch carp, catfish, buffalo, suckers, gar, bowfin, shad and drum fish species. House Bill 3756 would stop the roadside carnage.

Fiddling around with minutia is easier that publicly handling the major crises of a $317 billion pension deficit and 20 years of budget deficits. It is also nothing new in Springfield, where micromanagement is high art.

But Madigan’s replacement, House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, said he intends to pass an ethics reform package before the General Assembly adjourns in May. State lawmakers have about a month to make that promise happen, with the individual reform bills all sitting in the committees where bills usually go to die. The public has no idea what an “omnibus package” would entail.

Springfield’s culture of corruption comes with costs.

The state’s reputation suffers as the second-most corrupt state in the U.S. and most corrupt of the 10 largest states. There is an actual dollar cost as well: $556 million a year, or $10.6 billion since 2000 in lost economic opportunities.

To achieve meaningful reform, Illinois needs to:

  • empower the watchdog charged with holding lawmakers accountable for wrongdoing. The reform to do that is House Bill 2774.
  • improve transparency by improving financial disclosures from lawmakers. House Bill 3751 and Senate Bill 1597 would achieve that goal.
  • prohibit members of the General Assembly from working as lobbyists to executive agencies and local governments. House Bill 3664 calls for that change.
  • require a cooling off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists to the General Assembly after leaving office. The revolving door would be stopped by House Bill 3486.

Welch may gather all those reforms into a package and yet keep his promise, but Illinois democracy works best in the open with public debate. Keeping things hidden until the last minute was a hallmark of Madigan’s corrupt way of doing business.

Breaking with the past is the heart of ethics reforms. This opportunity deserves Springfield’s attention, not to be skewered in committee or allowed to float away with the calendar.

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