Editorial Roundup: Illinois
Chicago Sun-Times. January 9, 2021.
Editorial: The Illinois legislature needs a new watchdog now
Once again, the post of legislative inspector general is vacant.
The Illinois Legislative Ethics Commission needs to get its act together and appoint a new inspector general. Right now, the Legislature has no watchdog investigating corruption in its ranks.
That is not a good state of affairs.
Carol Pope, the legislative inspector general since 2019, announced in July she was leaving the job, but the commission has been unable to agree on recommending a replacement. Ordinarily, that might not necessarily raise a red flag, but before Pope, the office was unoccupied for four years. Illinois can't afford to make a habit of letting such an important office sit empty.
We've seen this sorry scenario play our before, with dire results. In 2017, while no one held the job of legislative inspector general, a victims' rights advocate testified her sexual harassment complaint against a state senator went nowhere for more than a year. More recently, no investigation has been started into a complaint filed on Dec. 23 because there is no inspector general to do it.
That is no way to handle allegations of wrongdoing.
According to Pope's letter of resignation, her last day was Thursday. The opportunity for a seamless transition to a new inspector general has already been squandered because no date has been set for both the House and Senate to be back in session and in a position to confirm a new inspector general. The Legislature adjourned last week without discussing the matter.
According to news reports, the four Republicans on the eight-person commission want to recommend Joseph Hartzler, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped to prosecute convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The four Democrats prefer former federal prosecutor David Risley, who has the advantage of having worked as an investigator under Pope. Both Hartzler and Risley worked in the administration of former Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Any recommendation or recommendations by the commission are sent to the Legislature for a final vote.
Reportedly, Democrats on the commission think the Republicans are trying to force through their preferred candidate by ignoring other qualified applicants and forcing the Legislature to take the GOP choice. Republicans say the Democrats are trying to add their own candidate to the list of recommendations because they know the Democratic majorities in the Legislature will have the final say.
It's unfortunate the recommendation process has not been completed in a transparent and bipartisan fashion.
Impartial, zealous and cautious
Picking an inspector general requires thoughtful consideration. A candidate must not only be impartial but also should be both zealous about investigating ethical violations and be cautious about unfairly going after people because of ordinary mistakes. Former Executive Inspector General James Wright, for example, was accused of the latter when he urged then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan to file a complaint against former Gov. Pat Quinn's chief of staff, Jerry Stermer, after Stermer reported he accidentally responded to three non-government messages on his state cell phone instead of his personal one.
Last spring, the Legislature passed a bipartisan ethics reform measure that gave the inspector general authority to issue subpoenas, a long-sought reform. But the IG still must get the commission's permission to issue those subpoenas and to make public reports on lawmakers who engaged in misconduct. That didn't sit well with Pope, a former prosecutor and appellate court judge, who called for more independence, as did her two predecessors. Even after last year's reforms, she said the office remains a 'úpaper tiger.'Ě
State Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy, has introduced a bill with additional proposals, including barring elected officials from sitting on the commission, giving the legislative inspector general's office independent subpoena power and broadening access to commission minutes for journalists and the public, ideas that were floated in 2020 before the Joint Committee on Ethics and Lobbying.
But even if more reforms are put into place, they won't make much of a difference if there is no qualified, fair-minded inspector general to investigate legislative corruption.
Fill the job.
Champaign News-Gazette. January 9, 2021.
Editorial: New state budget biggest item on legislators' plates
Illinois' political calendar will determine the legislative calendar in Springfield.
Illinois legislators were back in Springfield last week, engaging in more of the political malpractice that passes for doing the public's business.
If they have it their way, they'll act in haste, paving the way for the rest of us to lament their actions in leisure. Leaders of supermajority Democrats in the House and Senate say they intend to be finished with their handiwork, most importantly the new state budget, by April 8.
That's well ahead of the usual late-May adjournment date. This being an election year - the primary election is June 29 and the general election Nov. 8 - legislators want to have plenty of extra time to tell their constituents what a wonderful job they're doing.
But even that early end is a ways off - roughly three cold, wintry months - and the often-tough budget slog is dead ahead.
House Speaker Chris Welch has disingenuously stated that he hopes the new state spending plan will allow the state to 'úcontinue down that path of financial stability.'Ě
That's a worthy goal. But Illinois hasn't been following a path of financial stability for almost two decades. Instead, our elected officials have chosen debts and deficits camouflaged by deceit and budget gimmicks to con the public about the true state of the state's finances.
Even as Gov. J.B Pritzker, who inherited a fiscal mess, talks about a balanced 2022-23 budget being his 'útop priority,'Ě expect more of the usual fiscal sleight of hand.
Our leaders are happiest when they can spend, spend, spend, even if the state doesn't have the money. So they'll get plenty of exercise wrestling with the temptation to appropriate roughly $3.6 billion left over from last year's $8.1 billion federal coronavirus bailout money.
That may seem like a big pile of cash to fall back on if the spending plans stress expected revenues. But it's important to remember that the state owes far more than that - $4.5 billion - to the federal unemployment insurance trust fund.
That $4.5 billion debt is running at 2.27 percent interest. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza has asked federal officials to pause the interest.
There's no harm in asking. After all, if one doesn't ask, one doesn't get. But hoping that lenders will forego agreed-upon interest is not usually the most effective way to handle serious financial challenges.
This being an election year, legislators also are talking about lowering property taxes.
Property taxes are imposed by local taxing bodies that state officials cannot control. But it's a good talking point because financially stressed taxpayers' eyes light up when legislators raise the topic. But just as it is with discussion about a balanced budget, so, too, it is with recent talk of legislative action on property-tax relief.
In August 2019, the governor appointed with great fanfare an 88-member property-tax task force to come up with proposals on how to reduce property taxes. Deadlines for its report on the subject came and went with no response.
Given that track record, it's hard to be optimistic that much positive will be forthcoming on property-tax relief.
Here's what the public can expect. Supermajority Democrats will act on the issues they deem important in their own way. Superminority Republicans will publicly complain but mostly be ignored, except when the governor criticizes them for being the obstructionists they aren't but would love to be.
The public has seen this movie before. The only difference is that it will conclude earlier than usual, Illinois' idea of a happier ending.
Bloomington Pantagraph. January 7, 2021.
Editorial: Embarrassing ethics behavior in Springfield
Illinois lawmakers continue to let our state down by not taking ethics reforms and accountability seriously.
The latest example: The embarrassing handling of Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope's departure.
The inspector general is a kind of clearinghouse for misconduct complaints against lawmakers. The job is given authority to investigate allegations that a law, rule or regulation has been violated by lawmakers or people who work for the legislative branch.
A Republican, Pope was appointed in 2019 after the job was dark for four years. But she grew frustrated that the position didn't have more power and with the ethics reform legislation that lawmakers passed last year, saying legislators 'údemonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority.'Ě
Pope told lawmakers in July that she would be stepping down in mid-December. Then she extended it after a bipartisan panel appointed by party leaders couldn't agree on a replacement.
Republicans say Democrats, who control both chambers, wanted someone who wasn't recommended by the panel. Both sides said there were partisan factors at play. There were allegations of political maneuvering.
Cut short by an abridged session because of COVID, lawmakers left Springfield last week without coming to an agreement on this crucial position.
The irony of that is not lost, but not all that surprising. The words 'úethics reforms'Ě and 'úSpringfield'Ě don't exactly match.
Illinois has a long history of wildly corrupt politicians, from notorious Chicago city council members like 'úHinky Dink'Ě Kenna to a string of governors who spent time behind bars. (See Blagojevich.)
In recent years, two members of the General Assembly - Martin Sandoval and Luis Arroyo - have been charged with bribery.
And then there's Michael Madigan, the once-powerful House Speaker whose incredible fall coincided with the ComEd investigation into corruption and bribery.
That inquiry by federal prosecutors continues.
And yet Illinois has no internal watchdog to safeguard the citizenry from corrupt politicians.
That's a failure of those sent to Springfield.
That's a failure of the system.