Old habits die hard.
So when ethics-averse Illinois legislators felt public pressure to pass a strong ethics law that would limit their self-interested behavior, they reverted to past practice.
Inspired by the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s famous phrase lampooning legislative trickery — “Hocus, Pocus, Dominocus” — they passed legislation that nibbles around a few issues and, at first blush, shows signs of being serious.
But just as the state’s campaign finance law intentionally creates the illusion of oversight, the new ethics bill establishes rules that convey a false impression.
Some were fooled, at least initially.
The Illinois Policy Institute, no fan of the General Assembly, said the new law “mandates that legislators must wait six months before becoming lobbyists once leaving office.”
That’s what everyone was supposed to think.
But reading the legislative fine print proved revelatory.
“Illinois did the bare minimum,” one newspaper editorialized.
“We are disappointed in the bill’s failure to make the hard choices necessary to uproot the culture of corruption that has harmed Illinois for years,” stated Reform for Illinois.
The bill made a few moves in the right direction.
For example, Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope, a former appellate court justice, has complained publicly that she is forced by current law to be a toothless, somnolent watchdog.
Like her predecessors, Pope sought changes to make it easier for her to conduct thorough investigations of potential legislative misconduct.
As a consequence, the new law no longer requires Pope to get permission from a panel of legislators to begin inquiries. But, at the same, it denies her the authority to issue a subpoena for records germane to her investigations.
Pope also was unsuccessful in her request to make her reports public rather than maintain strict secrecy.
Altogether Pope expressed disappointment with the bill’s impact on her job because “the public is ready for changes when it comes to public corruption.”
Unfortunately, it’s not an issue what the public is ready for. It’s an issue of what legislators are ready to give up when it comes to feathering their own nests.
Take the issue of legislators supplementing their incomes by working as lobbyists.
That’s a real sore spot, particularly in the aftermath of a House member (Luis Arroyo) being charged with trying to bribe a Senate member (Terry Link).
Restricting legislators’ ability to act as lobbyists makes sense. Legislators hate the idea, but they bowed to political reality by acting as if they barred themselves from acting as lobbyists for six months after they leave office.
But the clever language in the legislation doesn’t mean that.
“Beginning the second Wednesday in January of 2023, no former member shall engage in activities at the state level that require registration under the Lobbyist Registration Act in a General Assembly of which he or she was a member until six months after leaving office.”
Here’s what the allow permits. Legislators who resign before “the second Wednesday in January of 2023” can immediately work as lobbyists.
They also can serve out their full terms and immediately begin work as lobbyists because the General Assembly “of which he or she was a member” has expired, and a new one has begun.
There’s more, but readers get the idea.
Not to worry, one legislator assures the public.
In an interview with Patrick Pfingsten for his political newsletter “The Illinoize,” State Rep. Ann Gillespie, D-Arlington Heights, assured the public that legislator/lobbyists are not a factor in the legislative process.
“If you ask people around, they will say that a former legislator is usually one of the least effective lobbyists,” she said.
That, of course, does not explain why so many legislators work as lobbyists and want to work as lobbyists or why so many special interests pay legislator/lobbyists generously to represent them. It’s apparently a mystery.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-393-8251.