Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ethical attitudes

The legislature waited a full month to send to the governor unanimously approved ethics reforms contained in HB 824. They sent it to his desk June 30, starting the 60-day clock for the governor to amend it, veto it or sign it before it automatically becomes law. That gives Gov. Rod Blagojevich until August 29, and he’s vowed to “improve” the measure but has not indicated what those changes might be and when they would come down. The legislation as approved by the General Assembly is designed to deter so-called pay-to-play politics, where state contractors donate to lawmakers’ political campaigns in an attempt to curry favor with the people who hire them. Blagojevich’s office says that’s not enough.

“We are disappointed that legislators didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to pass real and comprehensive ethics reform that would put strong campaign finance restrictions in place and end conflicts of interest across the board,” said Brian Williamsen, a Blagojevich spokesman, in an e-mail Monday afternoon. “We’re reviewing the bill.”

Legislators will return to the Capitol Wednesday and Thursday to convene a special session, ordered by the governor, to consider revenue-enhancing ideas to plug what Blagojevich says is a $2 billion hole in the current state operating budget. They’re also scheduled to consider a controversial way to fund a long-awaited capital plan for construction projects. (Check back later because the governor’s negotiators are set to hold a telephone conference about that plan this morning.) But ethics reform won’t be part of this two-day session. It's simply up to the governor to make the next move.

In the meantime, Illinois residents increasingly feel frustrated with state government for its lack of progress on major issues that affect daily life. Illinoisans, as well as voters throughout the Midwest, are getting more skeptical and distrusting of their government, according to a June poll commissioned by the Midwest Democracy Network. The survey was funded by the Joyce Foundation and conducted by Belden Russonello & Steward, an independent research firm in Washington, D.C. The firm called 2,044 adults in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin between late April and early May. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percent.

The survey spells out three important trends, according to Kate Stewart, partner at Belden Russonello & Stewart, in a release: “First, Midwesterners distrust their state governments. Second, despite their distrust, they are hopeful for change and support a range of reforms, and third, the voters are beginning to understand the connection between state government reform and solving problems like improving education, creating jobs and having a fairer tax policy.”

One of the items in the survey relates to the limited scope of the Illinois legislation: Get money out of state politics. The survey said 88 percent of respondents said not allowing state contractors to make political contributions to elected officials who issue the contracts would “make a difference,” while 61 percent said it would make a “big difference.” About the same percentage thought it would help to require lobbyists to report all of their clients, the issues they’re working on and the money they spend to lobby lawmakers.

Illinois voters will have a chance to put their votes where their mouths are this November, and they might not realize that they have more than one option to indicate that they want state government to change. In addition to voting for or against their local legislators, voters will be able to cast a vote to show whether they think the state should convene a constitutional convention. If yes, then elected delegates would be able to rewrite the state charter to draw truly competitive legislative districts, which is the hope of Cynthia Canary. She’s the director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform based in Chicago and an advocate for reform of the state’s ethics and election codes. She answered the following questions by e-mail, as she’s currently out of the country:

Q: On which government officials do voters take out their frustrations: The governor, their state legislators or their local officials?
With only 13 percent of respondents feeling the governor was doing a good job and 17 percent saying that of the legislature, the poll suggests that voters are frustrated with both the executive and legislative branches of government in Illinois. There is a frustration with the overall direction of state government (up to 68 percent wrong track from 42 percent in 2006) and a sense that no one is really at the helm. My sense is that the voters’ frustration is most likely to be aimed at the governor, as he is the one people believe should be steering the ship and he is the most visible embodiment of state government. Unfortunately for the governor, he is also the one most associated with ethical problems and scandal, and the poll very clearly indicated that Illinoisans are fed up with corruption and that honesty and accountability are the primary values they seek in state government.

We haven’t tested it, but my guess is that people's attitudes toward the [General Assembly] would mirror their feelings about Congress in that they may think that the institution and its members are dysfunctional, but they usually think their own representative is doing a fairly good job. In Illinois, voters have increasingly heard about the clashes between Blagojevich, [Senate President Emil] Jones and [House Speaker Michael] Madigan and about how the power struggles of these three have translated into broader gridlock in state government. Voters, en masse, may not have yet taken things one step forward to consider the role of rank and file legislators and evaluate whether their own representatives have displayed any leadership at the Capitol.

Q: Does that mean elections will be particularly interesting this fall, or do you think people who participated in the poll will put their vote where their mouths are?
I think that the state elections will largely be overshadowed by the federal elections this fall. To have really lively state elections, we need more truly competitive districts. Given the current map, few voters will have the opportunity to put their vote where their mouth is.

The great unknown in all of this and the possible exception is the vote on Con-Con. At this point, it seems that voter discontent with elected officials, more than any issues of a truly constitutional nature, is driving momentum for a constitutional convention. I don’t think that most voters know that the Con-Con question will be on the ballot, yet, but if we continue to have infighting, stalemate over the budget and allegations of (or indictments for) corruption, the idea of a convention may build momentum as we move into the fall election season. Clearly, voters are frustrated. And the expression of this frustration may be expressed in the populist sentiment that the people should wrest control of government and build in mechanisms that ensure accountability and responsiveness through a convention.

Q: The survey seems to indicate that the public thinks it would help to target lobbyists with more disclosure laws. Is that the next step for Illinois?
Sixty-one percent of respondents felt that greater lobbyist disclosure would make a large difference, with an additional 27 percent believing it would make some difference. Throughout the poll, we saw a desire for greater transparency and the belief that this would heighten accountability. I think that those polled understand that the regulation of lobbyists is an important part of the equation. Currently the state requires less disclosure from lobbyists than either Chicago or Cook County. Strengthening the Lobbyist Disclosure Act and introducing some real enforcement of the law is a practical next step and one with deep public support.

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