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posted: 12/11/2011 5:00 AM

The solution to Illinois' corruption is more democracy

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced Wednesday to 14 years in prison, one of the toughest sentences for political corruption that has ever been levied in Illinois.

Normally, this is the time when we all pause to reflect and then utter the self-satisfying phrase, "The system worked."

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If the definition of the system working is someone going to jail, simply the affirmation that no one is above the law, well then, we probably can rejoice to that extent. The system worked that much.

The problem is, if that's the sole definition, the system's working a lot in Illinois: Blagojevich, 14 years. George Ryan, 6.5 years. Dan Walker, 7 years. Otto Kerner, 3 years. And that's just our jailhouse governors.

Truth is, Blagojevich's conviction and sentencing is one more piece of evidence of exactly how much the system in Illinois is not working.

There was an interesting argument in the American Journal of Political Science a few years ago by political scientist Mark E. Warren that corruption results not simply from someone's rule-breaking but as much from undemocratic processes. In other words, democracies are dependent on transparency, public involvement and inclusion, and corruption flourishes when those attributes of democracy are lacking.

"Corruption in a democracy," Warren wrote, "usually indicates a deficit of democracy."

What a penetrating observation, a simply breathtaking description of the way state government operates in Illinois.

We are the state of the backroom deal. Not even our elected legislators have a real voice. Virtually all power flows through the governor and the legislative leaders, who ultimately get together off the floor of the General Assembly to determine what gets done or doesn't get done. At least in the case of the governor, the electorate has a voice. In the case of the legislative leaders, the voter has almost none.

Despite the productive reforms of the past few years, that system still operates, and until it is reformed, corruption will continue simply because all of the work will continue to be done outside the view of the public.

When deals are made behind closed doors, there are no checks. We are dependent on the dealmakers' good intentions. It is as simple and as real as that.

This is not a knock on Speaker Michael Madigan or Senate President John Cullerton or Gov. Pat Quinn or anyone else for that matter. It's not an issue with personalities. It is an issue with a system that provides an environment for corruption.

That doesn't mean that everyone is corrupt.

It does mean that unless we strengthen the democracy, those who are corrupt will find opportunities for their corruption.

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