RFI Statement: At a time of crisis, ethics bill falls short

On Monday, the General Assembly passed SB539, a long-awaited ethics omnibus bill. After endless scandals and indictments, we had hoped for comprehensive reform that would help restore Illinoisans’ confidence in their government. While SB539 takes some steps in the right direction, we are disappointed in the bill’s failure to make the hard choices necessary to uproot the culture of corruption that has harmed Illinoisans for years and earned our state government the lowest trust rating in the country.

Reform for Illinois has stood with its fellow good-government organizations—the Better Government Association, CHANGE Illinois, and Common Cause Illinois—and identified the ethics updates our state most sorely needs. The new bill makes some positive changes, including banning some legislator-lobbyists and requiring disclosure of lobbying consultants, which RFI proposed last year.

But SB539 falls short in key areas. For example, the bill:

Bans former lawmakers from lobbying for just six months, a “bottom of the barrel” waiting period. A revolving door ban of just half a year will put Illinois behind 36 states that have a cooling-off period of at least one year, and well below the recommended prohibition of two years implemented in a dozen states. And there would be no waiting period at all for ex-legislators lobbying a new General Assembly–they could leave on the last day of session and be back on the first day of the next one to lobby their former colleagues.

—Fails to give the Legislative Inspector General’s office the tools it needs to exercise truly independent ethics oversight over lawmakers. SB539 takes a step in the right direction by enabling the Legislative Inspector General to launch investigations without the approval of the Legislative Ethics Commission.

But the Inspector General will still need to ask permission from the Commission–a body made up entirely of current and former legislators–to issue subpoenas or publish reports finding wrongdoing. This gives lawmakers ample opportunity to hamper or suppress investigations into their colleagues.

This bill will do nothing to solve the problem former Inspector General Julie Porter identified when she claimed legislators quashed her report finding “serious wrongdoing by a sitting legislator.”

SB539 also adds new and unnecessary limits on the Inspector General’s jurisdiction, and misses an opportunity to improve independence and transparency by requiring the appointment of members of the public to the Ethics Commission.

In short, we still don’t have truly independent oversight of the legislature–the fox is still guarding the henhouse.

—Aims to prohibit lobbying by elected officials but creates a loophole. As we learned from the Luis Arroyo case, sitting lawmakers shouldn’t be allowed to be lobbyists. Under the new law, members of the General Assembly will be prohibited from lobbying state or local governments, but only on behalf of entities registered to lobby the General Assembly. That opens the possibility that legislators may still be able to take some lobbying jobs that could conflict with their obligations to the public.

—Fails to provide essential information about legislators’ possible conflicts of interest. While the bill makes some improvements on the old economic disclosure forms (called “none sheets” for their lack of information), other states require lawmakers to disclose much more information about the value and sources of income that may cause conflicts with their legislative work. For example, an official who received a $100,000 consulting fee from ComEd could have a much more serious conflict than one who received $7,600, but their answers on the new forms would be the same. Moreover, the new forms wouldn’t require disclosure of close family members’ interests, a fertile area for potential conflicts. We can do better.

Lawmakers say this bill is just the beginning for ethics reform, and we hope to take them at their word. But how much longer will Illinoisans have to wait? After so many years of corruption and scandal, they deserve real change now.


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