Editorial: Ethics bill allows lawmakers to claim 'reform' but doesn't build trust

  • Illinois Speaker of the House Emanuel "Chris" Welch gives closing remarks on the last day of session at the Capitol Tuesday.

    Illinois Speaker of the House Emanuel "Chris" Welch gives closing remarks on the last day of session at the Capitol Tuesday. Associated Press Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 6/2/2021 8:57 AM

Even before it was approved, Arlington Heights state Sen. Ann Gillespie admitted ethics legislation she had just submitted along with Downers Grove Republican Sen. John Curran was imperfect.

"This is a first step," she said during a joint press conference with Curran just hours before the law was passed by both houses, "and it's a solid step."

 

Perhaps.

How solid it is can be debated. Whether more actually will follow can hardly be assumed from this faithless legislature. The only thing that can be said with assurance is that it is a baby step.

With the former speaker under a cloud of suspicion related to the ComEd bribery scandal and several of their number facing corruption charges in court, lawmakers had pressure and an opportunity -- not to mention a responsibility -- to produce meaningful new rules to block corruption in Springfield.

They needed to put an end to the revolving door that allows legislators to leave office one day and return to the Capitol lobbying their colleagues the next. They needed to give the legislative inspector general real autonomy and authority in investigating possible ethical and legal lapses. They needed to require lawmakers to disclose financial or personal conflicts of interest they or their families might have with bills they consider.

These are issues lawmakers at minimum needed to address in order to rebuild public trust in state government, and "at minimum" is certainly how they addressed them.

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Instead of requiring lawmakers to wait a year or even two before being able to lobby their friends and former colleagues, as many states require, Illinois' lawmakers put the waiting period at a mere six months.

They gave the inspector general the authority to start an investigation without approval of the state ethics panel composed entirely of lawmakers but withheld the authority to issue subpoenas without permission from the politicians, severely limiting the chances an investigator will find anything.

They did require disclosure of personal conflicts of interest, but not of conflicts that may involve family members. Nor did they require lawmakers to recuse themselves from voting on measures that could benefit them or their families.

They did forbid lawmakers from working as lobbyists in certain circumstances, which at least suggests they can recognize an open conflict of interest, but they left lawmakers from Chicago entirely free of any of the new law's obligations, under the eyebrow-raising contention that Chicago's standards are stronger than those the legislature is imposing.

In short, lawmakers did just enough to tout themselves on reelection fliers for passing ethics reforms but not nearly enough to actually reform anything. They took a baby step toward change and that at least deserves recognition and the governor's signature. Maybe it even can be considered a solid step. But, as Gillespie acknowledged, it must also be the first of considerably more-solid steps to come.

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