The Illinois Senate has passed an ethics reform package aimed at preventing pay-to-play politics that stain Illinois government. Even if the House approved the same exact language to prohibit state contractors and their families from donating to officeholders who grant the contracts, all eyes are on Gov. Rod Blagojevich to see not if, but how he’ll change the legislation to “improve” it.
“It’s a beginning, but it does not go nearly far enough,” wrote Rebecca Rausch, Blagojevich’s spokeswoman, in an e-mail after the Senate unanimously approved Sen. Don Harmon’s measure today. “We urge the House to take this opportunity to make the bill broader and more comprehensive.”
Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said during floor debate that he intentionally kept the scope of the measure narrow to avoid curtailing speech, or preventing people from donating to political campaigns to show support. He also did not include a provision that would have prevented contractors from donating to statewide political campaigns, which also fund constitutional officers. That provision was desired by Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who called it a "loophole."
Democrats and Republicans lauded the effort and said this is a good first step, but it’s only a first step, as Sen. Christine Radogno said. She’s a Lemont Republican and persistent voice on ethics reform.
Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat, said, “We have moved a major boulder off the road to achieve the level of progress that we hope to achieve.”
But he said before getting too self-congratulatory, legislators need to keep in mind there’s more to do: better define the roll of independent advisors in the executive branch and provide greater accountability and transparency for how pension investment decisions are made. Both target problems under the microscope at the federal corruption trial of Tony Rezko, an unofficial advisor to the governor who is charged with rigging state boards to steer state contracts to political campaign donors. The jury is currently deliberating whether federal prosecutors proved its case against Rezko.
Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson said he hopes Harmon’s measure does win House approval — Harmon said he felt confident the other chamber would concur with his changes — but Watson cast doubt over whether the reform would become reality. He spoke directly about Blagojevich. “I think [the governor] ultimately has to sign it," he said. "We don’t need any help, we don’t need an amendatory veto, we don’t need him to make it better.”
An amendatory veto would send the measure back to the General Assembly, where the two chambers continue to function as two gears — sometimes turning in sync but most often stopping the other from moving. Harmon said he’s also confident the measure would gain enough votes to override the governor’s changes.
We’ll update you when we hear back from the House sponsor, Democratic Rep. John Fritchey of Chicago.