Look past the faces of Illinois corruption to see the larger problem
Focus too much on single aspects of Illinois corruption and the big picture will be lost, along with chances to fix the problems.
Illinois’ faces of corruption are creating a Magic Eye poster of sorts.
Remember those, that were popular in the ’90s? The artwork featured a repeating two-dimensional pattern, but you could see three-dimensional images if you stared hard enough.
Corruption in Illinois is like that right now. Just open the paper, and you’re bound to encounter picture after picture of Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, former Ald. Danny Solis, state Sen. Martin Sandoval, former state Rep. Luis Arroyo and a host of ComEd lobbyists on any given day.
But as the federal government widens its net, it’s been easy to lose the forest for the trees. We’re only seeing in 2D. By focusing solely on the faces – the ever-growing list of those who have been accused of committing wrongdoing – we and our state are failing to address the climate that allows wrongdoing to so easily take root.
Illinois is the second-most corrupt state in the nation, according to data from the Harvard University Center for Ethics. Public corruption has not only destroyed the trust that constituents placed in the lawmakers they elected to represent them, but during the past two decades has cost the Illinois economy roughly $550 million a year in foregone economic activity.
That estimate, by our count, is on the low end, as it tracks only corruption convictions and does not include the economic cost of unethical but legal activity lawmakers regularly engage in, such as not recusing themselves from a vote in which they have a personal financial interest, or lobbying before a different government body.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In this moment of soul searching, there is a clear path forward.
It includes the following steps:
- A revolving-door restriction. Currently, lawmakers could retire on Tuesday and be in the state Capitol working for a lobbying firm by Wednesday. The lack of a cooling off period encourages lawmakers to prioritize building relationships with special interest groups that can help them in life after the legislature, rather than to serve constituents. To combat this, we recommend lawmakers wait at least two years before becoming lobbyists.
- A ban on lobbying for sitting lawmakers. Yes, there’s an absurdity to the fact that former state Rep. Arroyo, current Senate President John Cullerton and others are registered lobbyists with local governments. When a state lawmaker lobbies local government for a client, the members of that body know the lawmaker might be voting on measures that will affect the municipality. Furthermore, when municipal or regulatory issues come before the General Assembly, lawmaker-lobbyists are in the position of potentially casting a vote to curry favor with government entities they hope to sway to benefit their clients.
- Mandated disclosure and voting recusal. Lawmakers are trusted, not mandated, to give notice when they’re voting on an issue where they have a potential conflict of interest. C’mon. We weren’t born yesterday. Public disclosure and recusal when a lawmaker has a personal stake in a bill should be required.
- More legislative inspector general power. The state’s Legislative Inspector General has been described as a “toothless tiger” – lacking the power to publish reports without approval from an ethics commission made up of eight legislators. This commission also grants or denies permission to the Inspector General to open investigations or issue subpoenas.
Change won’t happen on its own – leave things to Capitol leadership and we’ll be stuck in the same holding pattern we’ve been in since former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment in 2009. Then, an ethics task force put together a lengthy list of reform recommendations. Proposals for key structural reforms were largely ignored.
Constituents need to let lawmakers know that they want this change, that they’re sick of cringing as they read the news each day.
The makers of Magic Eye have a simple piece of advice that applies here, too: The longer you look, the clearer and deeper the image becomes.
Join us in the fight, and help us get to the root of corruption in Illinois.
This editorial opinion was originally published Nov. 26, 2019, in the Springfield State Journal-Register.