SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – You may remember Illinois had a special commission created to address ethics and lobbying reform last year. The group met several times in the early months of 2020. Members missed a requirement to submit a report of recommendations for lawmakers. However, that never happened due to the COVID-19 pandemic cutting session short.
Now, lawmakers hope they can address some of the problematic areas this year. A key focus during the House Ethics and Elections Committee hearing Monday was the revolving door in Springfield. This is a common metaphor used by political observers when elected officials step down and quickly become lobbyists.
Democratic lawmakers proposed a six-month prohibition period during lame-duck session in January. However, good government groups say that would leave Illinois at the “bottom of the barrel” compared to other states.
“More than a dozen states have at least a two-year prohibition on lobbying,” said Alisa Kaplan, Executive Director of Reform for Illinois. “Thirty-six have at least one year. Only one state that we could find, North Carolina, has a six-month provision.”
“Corruption happens when people make bad decisions”
Of course, this comes following backroom dealing by former lawmakers working as lobbyists with ties to former Speaker Mike Madigan who arranged deals for ComEd. Some Democratic committee members said they agree change is needed. But, they don’t want a “blanket” ban on accepting lobbying jobs after serving the public.
Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) mentioned she helped craft a massive ethics reform package while working with former Attorney General Lisa Madigan. That was years before Williams started in the General Assembly. Although, she said there’s clearly more cases of corruption in Springfield today.
“At the end of the day, corruption happens when people make bad decisions and are willing to disregard the law and take immoral and unethical and illegal actions,” Williams said.
She said a revolving door prohibition probably wouldn’t stop people who “blur the lines” of their profession and working on behalf of their constituents. Williams explained that lawmakers have to pick a lane and focus on helping their voters while in office. However, she feels officials should have the choice to work for an organization they support.
“If we have to put the bar so low that we have to make us basically incapable of making our own decisions and acting ethically within the oath we all took, I think that does not bode well for our state in the future. I just have trouble finding a nexus between some of these issues, not all, and the problems that we’re really facing in terms of restoring our faith in government,” Williams said.
A matter of equity
The Chicago Board of Ethics also weighed in on the discussion for a revolving door provision. While some lobbying work is different between the state and city, Executive Director Steve Berlin told committee members it’s important to limit favoritism.
“People will meet with and try to sway city officials and city employees, ‘Give my organization the money,’” said Berlin. “So, we look at it as a matter of equity. If one of these organizations has somebody who is a former alderman, for example, naturally, it would seem that the people who are in the city are going to be favoring that person. It puts other organizations that are competing for that same pot of money in a disadvantage. We don’t want to get in a situation where there’s a bidding war.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. (D-Chicago) says the revolving door creates a classism issue. He emphasized that Illinois doesn’t have much restriction on business interests for lawmakers as compared to employment. Evans noted that several members of the General Assembly were rich before taking office, while others will need to work the rest of their lives.
“My rich colleague is not going to get a job, right? But, I happen to be a working class African American. So, unfortunately I don’t have a trust fund,” Evans said. “I’m probably going to get a job after employment because I don’t want to serve in the General Assembly for 40 years. So, I’m gonna get employment…Unfortunately, I think that’s something that’s really been missed.”
Evans noted that the group of lawmakers who often seek employment after public service are Black, women, or other minorities.
Bills up for discussion
Several proposals awaiting discussion from the Ethics committee have provisions addressing the revolving door. Rep. Patrick Windhorst filed an omnibus bill that would require a one-year prohibition after a term expires or the remainder of a member’s current term, whichever is longer. Rep. Tom Bennett’s proposal would block lawmakers from becoming lobbyists until two-year after leaving office.
Committee Chair Kelly Burke (D-Evergreen Park) said lawmakers will likely re-use some of the language from the ethics package that failed to pass during lame-duck session.
Common Cause Illinois, Change Illinois, and the Better Government Association support a two-year revolving door period.
April 5, 2021 at 09:04PM