Guest Column: New Year Provides New Opportunities for Ethics Reform

The column below was published in the Chicago Daily Herald on February 4, 2020.

With the start of the 2020 legislative session, the House of Representatives has a real opportunity to finally address glaring ethics problems that have cast a blanket of corruption and dishonor over state government.

Federal investigations are ongoing, and the indictments keep coming. Lawmakers caught using their political office and influence for personal gain are facing serious criminal charges, and it appears more federal raids, arrests and indictments are coming. Legislators are wearing wires to capture incriminating evidence against colleagues on tape. Disgraced lawmakers are striking deals with the Feds in exchange for lighter sentences. Political operatives are sending emails that refer to a rape cover-up and a ghost payroll scheme, while the longest-serving Speaker of the House in the history of the nation repeatedly rejects all calls for internal hearings into alleged wrongdoing. It has all the makings of a blockbuster movie, but unfortunately, this is not fiction. This is today’s political dynamic under the dome in Springfield.

In this current 101st General Assembly, House Republicans have sponsored over a dozen ethics reform bills that would pour some much-needed disinfectant over our incredibly dirty and corrupt political system. Many of the reform bills I authored and filed myself. Yet even as federal raids, arrests and indictments were grabbing headlines on an almost weekly basis, these common-sense reform measures were blocked from consideration. Governor Pritzker made mention of the need for ethics reform in his annual State of the State Address, but his words must be followed by decisive action. He is not a voting member of the House or Senate. True ethics reform only becomes law if majority party leaders from both chambers decide to take bold action.

Illinoisans need to know that at the same time influential Democrats were being arrested and charged with serious crimes, legislation was already pending that would address the exact areas of concern. Every one of those bills was blocked in 2019. They include a measure that would ban the use of red-light cameras statewide, ban legislators from also serving as paid lobbyists, and increase criminal penalties for those who violate ethics laws. Majority party lawmakers also refused to consider a bill that would significantly strengthen reporting requirements on the statements of economic interest that lawmakers must file, legislation that would allow any bill with more than five co-sponsors from each political party to be heard and voted on in a substantive committee, and a bill that would prohibit a lawmaker who resigns due to an ethics-related arrest from having a role in choosing his/her successor.  Measures to end the gerrymandering of political maps and put term limits in place for legislative leaders were also denied fair consideration in 2019. Make no mistake- there is a direct correlation between how political insiders draw legislative maps to protect themselves, and the deep-rooted corruption that has undermined our entire system of state government.

This is a new year. Lawmakers are scheduled a total of 51 days at the Capitol prior to the scheduled May 31 adjournment, and the corruption crisis must be at the top of the Springfield legislative agenda. Last year Democrats passed a $40.6 billion budget and a $45 billion capital infrastructure bill in less than 48 hours. Fifty-one days is plenty of time to reform ethics— but only if legislators have the political will and courage to do so.