New legislators like to make a big splash when they first get to Springfield, not necessarily with their colleagues but with the folks back home.
State Rep. Dave Vella certainly isn’t the first politician to try to burnish his reputation back home by introducing legislative proposals that sound good but probably won’t go far.
But give him credit anyway.
A Rockford Democrat who narrowly defeated a Republican incumbent in November, Vella has taken up two hot-button issues — legislative pensions and legislative lobbying.
Vella has proposed barring retired legislators from immediately turning to lobbying their former colleagues after they leave the House or Senate. Instead, he wants to require them to wait five years before they can cash in on this lucrative endeavor.
Vella’s other proposal will go over even bigger with constituents who have over the years become increasingly resentful of state government and anyone associated with it.
He proposes to end the legislative retirement system, which pays incredibly generous benefits to retirees but is in dire financial shape. That pension fund has only 17 percent of the assets it needs to meet current obligations.
Vella is on the right track with his assertions that the lobbying and pension rules were formed to meet legislators’ financial desires, not the public’s needs.
The notion that legislators can leave office and immediately start lobbying their former colleagues is ridiculous. While Vella is pushing this bill, he ought to amend it to bar legislators from lobbying at other levels of government in Illinois.
The whole arrangement is unsavory, and it’s one of the reasons that government in Illinois is often unsavory. Then again, it’s also profitable.
That’s the problem. Are legislators going to revise weak lobbying rules that many intend to exploit when they leave? Would they really slap a five-year ban on the practice, a time period in which their influence with former colleagues will only decline?
Despite all the talk of ethics reform, it’s hard to imagine they will embrace substantive reform.
As for the legislative pension system, current legislators might cut off access to the honey pot for future legislators.
A large number of House and Senate members, including Vella, already have declined to sign up for it because people back home resent the absurdly generous benefits.
Here’s just one example: Former House Speaker Michael Madigan is eligible to collect a $7,100-a-month pension, a sum that will jump to $12,600 per month in a year. Does a pension of $150,000 a year for a multimillionaire lawyer make sense in a nearly bankrupt state?
Change comes hard in Springfield, and it’s especially hard when proposed changes affect legislators’ principal concern — their finances. Vella chose two winning ideas, but it would be no surprise if his colleagues regard them as sure losers.