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Monday, July 6, 2009

The Farce of Illois Ethics Reform

The Chicago Tribune has an excellent piece that describes the "inside baseball" that took the ethics bill into a watered down farce. I recommend everyone read the article.

On a more philosophical level, the reason that ethics reform turned into a farce is because the fox was guarding the hen house. In other words, the very people that were in charge of creating the ethics reform bill were the ones that benefitted most from the manner in which the system operates now.

It's true that Pat Quinn created an Illinois Ethics Reform Commission. The Commission, and the ethics reform movement, were borne out of the Blagojevich scandal. When it first started, there was momentum behind serious ethics reform. In the several months since all of this started, the momentum has slowed. Now, there is enough political cover so that any bill could be viewed a victory. The Commission offered tough reform proposals. Of course, the Commission could only provide recommendations. It was, however, up to John Cullerton, President of the Senate, Michael Madigan, Speaker of the House, and Pat Quinn, Governor, to craft the legislation that would create ethics reform.

Yet, it is Cullerton and Madigan that are the main beneficiaries of the current campaign finance climate. For instance, one reform that the Commission recommended was limiting how much campaign money legislators could donate from their own campaigns to other campaigns. Well, Madigan was never in any danger of losing his own election. As such, Madigan used a great deal of his campaign funds to filter to other candidates, those loyal to his agenda.

There was tough pay to play recommendations in the bill. Now, Madigan doesn't necessarily support pay to play. He is, however, in charge of doling out committee assignments. If there is tough anti pay to play legislation, it makes committee assignment less valuable.

Then, ethics reform met cold calculated political gamesmanship. Quinn will likely run for governor in 2010. Another likely candidate is Lisa Madigan, daughter of Michael Madigan. Quinn tried to add a provision in the ethics bill that would stop state parties from endorsing and supporting individual candidates during the primaries. Of course, Michael Madigan is the state's Democratic Party Chairman. This would have stopped Madigan from using state party money to support his daughter's primary run against Quinn, if she does run that is.

By the end, the final bill is a mockery. First, nothing goes into effect until after the November 2010 elections. The bill "limits" contributions from one politician to another to $90,000. In kind contributions weren't limited at all. The list goes on and on.

The real problem with the fate of ethics reform is that the politicians that game the system were in charge of reforming it. The only way that Illinois will have any real reform is through voter referendum. Herein lies the rub, as Shakespeare would say. The Illinois referendum process is difficult and cumbersome that it is nearly impossible to bring any binding referendum on the ballot, let alone have it pass. So, reforms like term limits which could only pass, for obvious reasons, by the voters directly never see the light of day of a referendum. The closest the state came was in 1994 when the Supreme Court of the state struck down the referendum as unconstitutional saying that such an initiative was not what the referendum process was meant for. So, the state is stuck having the legislators most benefitting by the system with trying to reform that system.

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