Editorial: Legislature faces a mandate for ethics reform in 2020

  • The Capitol in Springfield: In November, lawmakers kicked the ethics can into 2020. They must deal with the issue in the coming session.

    The Capitol in Springfield: In November, lawmakers kicked the ethics can into 2020. They must deal with the issue in the coming session. File Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 12/31/2019 10:18 AM

Among the most disappointing 2019 leftovers from the 101st General Assembly is at least one priority that in a just universe would not be difficult to accomplish. But because the universe of the Illinois legislature is not always just, ethics reform proved unnecessarily complicated even in the face of high-profile charges and federal investigations.

At a Nov. 12, press conference at which Republicans pleaded with lawmakers to take up a package of ethics bills, state Rep. Grant Wehrli, of Naperville, intoned, "How many more times do we need to play this broken record?"

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's an enduring question festering under the skin of most Illinoisans who care about good government. Unfortunately, legislative leaders found trying to answer it too complex this year, so, in a familiar stratagem, they kicked the issue into the future with the creation of a Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform tasked with providing recommended legislation by March 31.

Yes, with only six Republican members, the 16-member panel is dominated by Democrats and Democratic appointees, and, yes, its deadline is conveniently timed to come after the March 17 primary. So, cynical observers may question how serious leaders are about producing meaningful reforms.

But the Republicans on the panel -- including Wehrli, state Senators Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods and John Curran of Downers Grove, and former state Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont and former state Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights -- boast strong credentials for independence, leadership and determination, and Democratic appointees like Secretary of State Inspector General Jim Burns and the attorney general's Executive Inspector General Diane Saltoun and Public Integrity Bureau Chief Richard Cenar add to the promise of getting meaningful direction.

The question -- and the matter on which Illinoisans must insist without letup -- will be whether legislative leaders and lawmakers themselves will summon the resolve to turn ideas into action. It's not like they don't have material to work with. Bills already proposed include measures that would require more detailed disclosure about lawmakers' economic interests, revise systems for replacing lawmakers who leave office before the end of their term, substantially stiffen standards applying to lobbying and increase penalties for officials who break the rules.

For far too long, Illinois has been a national laughingstock on matters of fairness and honesty in government. High-profile arrests, charges and investigations during 2019 have at least provided an opportune moment to produce change. We're counting on the joint commission to offer counsel that will make these and other reforms possible during the coming legislative session. We're counting on lawmakers to heed the advice. And we're counting on the governor to stand behind his repeated pronouncements about the importance of achieving substantive and lasting ethics regulations.

Anything less will be an intolerable and insulting dereliction of legislative duty.

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