Illinois in investigators' crosshairs, but but no reforms on horizon
Federal authorities are taking a keen interest in Illinois-style government. And they don't seem to like what they see.
This year alone, Illinoisans have witnessed:
A criminal indictment of 50-year Chicago Alderman Ed. Burke, a prison sentence for former Alderman Willie Cochran, a federal grand jury investigation into alderman and Cook County Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Carrie Austin, and three federal raids at the homes of members of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan's inner circle.
Just to name a few.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is taking advantage of the moment. She saw one of her biggest wins yet last Wednesday.
Cashing in on her landslide victory at the ballot box and a mandate to clean up city government, Lightfoot received unanimous approval from aldermen on a package of ethics reforms that included empowering the Chicago inspector general to audit City Council committees, limiting outside employment for aldermen and more than doubling the maximum fine for ethics violations.
It's not enough. But it's an encouraging start. And Lightfoot has been unafraid to point a spotlight on the city's culture of corruption every chance she gets.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has done the opposite.
"The governor has said previously there is an ongoing investigation and we need to see how that plays out," Pritzker's administration told political blog Capitol Fax in response to news of raids on some of Madigan's closest allies.
Those include the speaker's decadeslong confidant and former lobbyist Mike McClain, former Alderman Michael Zalewski, who represented a ward that overlapped with Madigan's Southwest Side House district for 20 years, and former political lieutenant Kevin Quinn, who served Madigan for nearly 20 years. In addition to news of the May raids, the Chicago Tribune reported federal agents are now investigating $10,000 in behind-the-scenes payments from prominent Illinois lobbyists to Quinn after he was fired from Madigan's political operation for allegations of sexual harassment.
Illinoisans statewide saw few significant ethics reforms in Springfield this spring.
When Chicago is beating you on anti-corruption efforts, something is wrong.
Lightfoot ran on breaking the machine. But Pritzker has funneled more than $10 million to two political committees chaired by Madigan -- the Democratic Party of Illinois and Democratic Majority. And as of April, the governor himself was the subject of an active federal investigation into property tax appeals on his Gold Coast mansion, according to WBEZ.
Tackling Illinois corruption isn't just a moral imperative. It's a financial necessity.
In an upcoming report, Illinois Policy Institute Chief Economist Orphe Divounguy estimates public corruption cost Illinoisans more than $550 million per year from 2000-2017, for a total of $9.9 billion. That's nearly $800 per resident.
Lightfoot realizes that before uttering a word about tax hikes on some of the most overburdened residents in the nation, she must show progress in rooting out corruption.
But the governor does not yet seem to think there's a problem worth addressing.
Here are a few places to start:
First, push for democracy in the General Assembly. Madigan wields the most autocratic House rules in the country, and can decide single-handedly decide what bills even get a public hearing. This is the same bottlenecking Lightfoot is trying to end in Chicago's City Council, where aldermen want to keep hold of total veto power over all that happens in their wards.
Second, back a bipartisan fair maps amendment sitting in the Illinois Senate. Too many lawmakers are protected from challengers due to gerrymandering. Competition would be a disinfectant.
Third, commission an independent study comparing Illinois with the rest of the nation on the rules governing outside employment and "revolving door" provisions for Illinois lawmakers, solicit recommendations, and make changes.
And fourth, stop letting Illinois politicians muzzle their own watchdog. Former Illinois Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter bashed state lawmakers in April.
"Unless and until the legislature changes the structure and rules governing the LIG, it is a powerless role, and no LIG -- no matter how qualified, hardworking and persistent -- can effectively serve the public," she wrote.
No governor -- no matter how qualified, hardworking and persistent -- should be above pushing for these critical changes.
Austin Berg, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute.