Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Ever heard of the “corruption tax”?

It’s the all-purpose umbrella term used to describe the extra costs imposed on regular folks who live in a state as historically corrupt as Illinois.

Sometimes they come indirectly in the form of extra expenses imposed on developers and business owners that they pass on to customers.

The pending corruption case of prominent Chicago Alderman Ed Burke is one of those. A national fast-food chain wanted to renovate a store in his ward, and Burke indicated — allegedly, of course — that it needed to hire his law firm to do its legal work so there wouldn’t be any undue delays in getting the work completed.

Sometimes money is extracted directly out of the pockets of Illinoisans, the ongoing Commonwealth Edison bribery investigation being Exhibit A.

ComEd allegedly put a slew of former House Speaker Michael Madigan’s friends and allies in no-show utility jobs in exchange for Madigan ensuring the General Assembly acted favorably on ComEd-backed legislation that included proposed rate hikes.

The ComEd bribery indictment alleges the utility spent $1.3 million between 2011 and 2019 on Madigan’s associates. But that’s chump change compared to the many millions it has collected and will continue to collect from higher rates approved by the Legislature.

Whether the higher costs come in dimes or dollars, they add up to formidable amounts regular people wouldn’t have to pay but for this state’s shady shakedowns and outright bribery.

There’s another pending corruption cost case involving Gov. J.B. Pritzker. It concerns illegal patronage hiring by his administration. He’s tired of having to answer to outside overseers of executive branch hiring and wants the court-authorized monitoring system currently in place to be ended.

The question facing the courts is whether Prizker and his minions are trustworthy enough to trust not to engage in more illegal patronage hiring.

So far, a federal judge in Chicago has said that he’s not and that Pritzker’s pledge is not sufficiently credible.

U.S. Judge Edmond Chang said it’s clear to him from reports of an outside monitor that the message that illegal patronage hiring is actually illegal and must stop is “not getting across” to hiring managers.

He said the “devil is not just in the details, but in the implementation.”

The governor is appealing that decision to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

This case is a hangover from the multi-year patronage-hiring scandal at the Illinois Department of Transportation that began after former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich took office in 2007 and ran through much of the term of his successor, Pat Quinn.

But the fight over patronage hiring in Illinois goes back decades, culminating in a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found patronage hiring to be unconstitutional.

Prior to that, Illinois Democratic and Republican administrations gave preference to members of their parties when it came to hiring for state jobs instead of merit.

Since then, systems have been put in place to create a merit-based hiring system. Most state jobs are filled through merit hiring. But some high-level policy-making positions remain open to political hiring based on the theory that the executive needs someone of his political viewpoint to implement policy.

But political players have routinely tried to find ways around the rules, as the IDOT scandal demonstrated.

As a consequence, the federal court authorized outside monitors to assure state government follows the rules.

Pritzker, who is tired of the monitors, contends that they are no longer necessary and further argues that their continued presence inappropriately infringes on his authority as the state’s executive.

“It’s past time to ... terminate the decree,” Pritzker lawyers argued in a recent brief to the appeals court.

Lawyers opposing Pritzker’s position argue that there are two problems with it — there are still violations of hiring rules and there’s no guarantee Pritzker won’t do what Blagojevich and Quinn did when they were in office — reinstate patronage hiring to reward loyal political supporters.

In other words, proponents of keeping the monitors say the public can’t trust the governor even with an outside review in place, and it certainly can’t trust him to follow the law if the monitors are removed.

Past practice clearly demonstrates that Illinois governors are not uniformly trustworthy when it comes to illegal patronage hiring. At the same time, it’s expensive to maintain monitors to oversee proper hiring practices.

Call it a corruption tax. Call it a trust tax. Call it business as usual in Illinois.

Whatever one calls it, taxpayers have the luxury of picking up the tab for Illinois’ traditionally unsavory practices.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at 217-393-8251 or jdey@news-gazette.com.

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