Illinois state lawmakers get a little more ethical, but a lot more is needed
The new Illinois ethics law brings a little change to the nation’s second-most corrupt state, but what is needed are the stronger reforms lawmakers promised after ousting scandal-plagued former House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a legislative ethics reform package Oct. 8 after an amendatory veto spurred minor changes in the language. While the omnibus ethics package is an overdue first step, Illinois’ political corruption remains rampant and in need of greater curbs.
Starting Jan. 1, state lawmakers are banned from registering as lobbyists within six months of leaving office and from political fundraising while the Illinois General Assembly is in session. The six-month ban only applies when lawmakers attempt to lobby the General Assembly they served in. A lawmaker leaving office the day before a new General Assembly could forego the “cooling off” period.
Senate Bill 539 also amends the Illinois Governmental Ethics Acts by expanding financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers and certain public officials. However, close family members are only required to disclose jointly held assets and liabilities.
Under the new law, the Legislative Inspector General has power to investigate complaints against lawmakers related to their government service without approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission – a group of lawmakers’ peers.
Yet current Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope announced she’s resigning before the law takes effect because it simply doesn’t go far enough. She said the inspector general should be allowed to issue subpoenaes without asking lawmakers for permission, as other state inspectors general may do. She also wants to investigate lawmaker conduct unrelated to their government service.
“That’s why I said I am a paper tiger,” Pope said. “There are no real teeth to this legislation the way it is now.”
State Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Springfield, echoed Pope’s concerns, saying, “We moved an inch when we need to move a mile.”
In the wake of the former House Speaker Mike Madigan bribery scandal, lawmakers promised major ethics reform. SB 539 is a step in changing Illinois’s systemic corruption, ranked second-worst in the nation. Illinois Policy Institute experts have formulated further steps to bring permanent change, including:
- 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.
- Empower the legislative inspector general to issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses and to publish their findings of wrongdoing without first seeking permission from the Legislative Ethics Commission. Lawmakers should also consider Pope’s recommendations, including to add a ninth member – a non-lawmaker – to the Legislative Ethics Commission.
- 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 bars lawmakers from working as lobbyists for big firms, but allows them to open their own shops and get around that restriction.