SPRINGFIELD - Illinois deserves a failing grade for its lobbyist disclosure and enforcement, according to a study The Center for Public Integrity released today.
The Washington-based ethics watchdog group ranked Illinois 45th out of the 50 states, with a score of 45 out of a possible 100.
"It's not surprising," said Kent Redfield, political science professor at University of Illinois Springfield. "I think it's quite justified."
Special interests reported spending more than a million dollars a year trying to sway lawmakers in Illinois in 2001 and 2002, and those totals do not include campaign contributions or salaries of the nearly 3,000 registered lobbyists in the state.
Illinois requires lobbyists to register with the secretary of state, listing whom they represent. They also must file reports twice a year noting how much they spend and whom they spend it on.
But the state has no power to audit the reports for accuracy.
"We don't do that," said Lisa Stickel, administrative assistant in the secretary of state's index department, where the lobbyist records are kept.
"It is very much an honor system, and probably most people are doing what they are supposed to, but it is always kind of a question," said Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Canary said Illinois could benefit by auditing a random sample of the reports each year.
"I think you do want to send a message that this is a law that's taken very seriously and we are going to make sure that it is adhered to," she said.
The lobbyist registrations are available to the public on the Internet, but the disclosure forms can only be examined in person at the secretary of state's index department in Springfield, and copied for a fee of 50 cents per page, Stickel said.
On the forms, spending is classified under general categories, such as entertainment or gifts, and spending less than $100 does not have to be itemized.
Unlike some other states, Illinois lobbyists do not have to indicate in those reports what specific bills they were addressing.
The law provides penalties for those who do not complete the forms properly, but Illinois has not fined anyone for incomplete disclosure in more than five years, the Center for Public Integrity found.
"There's no structure that elicits information and no oversight, so it is very easy to, again, just do the minimal sort of thing," Redfield said. "We certainly don't get a clear picture of what's going on."
In contrast, the state's campaign finance reports are openly available on the Internet; they are monitored for accuracy by the State Board of Elections; and the law has real penalties for violations, he said.
"It creates a very different climate," Redfield said.
Illinois' current ethics laws do not require special interests to disclose how much they dole out to contract lobbyists, often a major part of their spending to influence legislation.
"When we've got these huge issues like the recent SBC issues and kind of overnight there's an army of people who come in to do their work, I think it really is important that people know who's who and what pieces of legislation they are trying to influence and know what is being spent and have some kind of confidence that it is an accurate portrayal," Canary said. "There should be some way to let us really understand what the magnitude of the investment is."
The Center for Public Integrity also downgraded Illinois for its failure to enact a "revolving door" law, requiring a cooling-off period between leaving state government employment and taking a job as a lobbyist.
Part of the problem in changing the lobbyist laws is inherent in the system.
The people who make the laws are the same people who may not want all of the lobbying that is directed at them to be publicized. And the lobbyists, who may also oppose tighter restrictions, are by nature very influential with lawmakers and good at making their arguments.
Joseph Ciaccio, president of the Illinois Railroad Association and Speaker of the Third House, the association of lobbyists in Illinois, said the group does not get involved in the fate of bills to change lobbying laws.
"We're pretty much at the legislators' mercy on that," he said.
One bill awaiting the governor's signature would actually relax current disclosure laws.
It would require lobbyists to check with any lawmakers they list on their expenditure reports before submitting them to the secretary of state. The state representative or senator would then have the opportunity to return or reimburse the lobbyist for the gift or honorarium so it would not show up on the report. The bill would not apply to meals or entertainment the lawmaker was treated to by the lobbyist.
But Canary said another bill that would tighten lobbyist disclosure regulations may still be on the table in ethics legislation negotiations going on this month.
"There seems to be this public demand for some changes," she said, "and perhaps it is an opportunity to tighten things up that otherwise would be a little trickier."
Whatever regulations are in place, lobbyists do serve a critical role in the political process, said Chris Mooney, who has taught lobbying workshops as director of the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Lobbyists are a way for citizens, groups and corporations to get their interests represented before the government, he said.
"The individual citizen can go and talk to their member, but people who have common interests, like everyone who works in the horse racing industry or everyone who wants to ban abortion, can band together and lobby for public policy to help them."
Lobbyists' main function is to provide information to lawmakers and other government officials, who are not specialists in every policy area, Mooney said.
"Of course lobbying and lobbyists have a bad rap, because the average citizen thinks about a lobbyist as a fat, bald guy in a plaid suit with a cigar, walking around the Legislature handing out cash to buy votes," he said.
"Even if it ever was that way it was a very small percentage. There's always bad apples in any profession, but 99 percent of these people are honest, hard-working servants of the people they represent."
You can reach Kate Clements at (217) 782-2486 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.