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Ethics groups lean on Illinois lawmakers about missing report


Thursday, October 15, 2020  |  Article  |  By Cole Lauterbach | The Center Square

Ethics, Campaign Reform, Transparency (12a) , Pay to Play, Corruption

(The Center Square) – State lawmakers have longed faced criticism for making major decisions at the 11th hour, rushed through General Assembly just before a holiday weekend with minimal public scrutiny. Good government advocates have been asking for months about the Legislature’s much-vaunted report on how they’ll tackle their fundamental ethics failures but have received no response. 

They now fear that any reforms could see a similar fate; finalized behind closed doors, rushed through the legislative process lacking any oversight, and enacted before the public knows what’s happened.

Reform for Illinois, the Better Government Association, Common Cause Illinois, and CHANGE Illinois are demanding the public get access to the report, or what’s finished to this point, that the Joint Commission on Lobbying and Ethics Reform had been tasked with in 2019. 

“The public deserves to see what the legislature is going to consider in November with enough time to respond,” the groups said in a statement. “Yet in mid-October, just a few weeks before session is scheduled to start, we still have no idea what the Commission will recommend.” 

The panel of dozens of state lawmakers had already missed deadlines for reporting progress but their final report, due March 31, was held up due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A spokesman for Senate President Don Harmon said they hoped to tackle “meaningful ethics reform” once they return in November. 

Alisa Kaplan, Executive Director for Reform for Illinois, said Wednesday that trust in lawmakers is lower nowhere else in the nation, and their less-than-forthcoming response on reforming their own chambers does not help.

“This commission was supposed to be about rebuilding trust in Illinois government. When you're talking about ethics reform, something that's supposed to help solve the problems of the opaque backroom deals, you're talking about a process that's supposed to address all of that,” she said. 

Kaplan worries that the cumulative work of the commission will be released with little time for public review, similar to other significant pieces of legislation lawmakers have approved.

“It might be the norm with much other legislation but that doesn't mean it's the right way to do things. We're concerned that, if they were to release the report at all, there's not going to be enough time for the public to examine it, respond to it, and to know what shape the legislation is going to take.” 

Ethics reforms come at a time when the Legislature is facing an admitted patronage scandal allegedly perpetrated to curry favor with House Speaker Michael Madigan, the nation’s longest-serving legislative leader of any state or federal body.