Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Search for a common ground

By Bethany Jaeger, with Jamey Dunn contributing
House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton advanced their first joint measure to reform state government, focusing on the management of the public employee pension systems and targeting board members appointed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. At the same time, the independent reform commission created by Gov. Pat Quinn issued its first set of recommendations for beefing up state ethics laws and improving transparency of government operations.

How the legislative reform committee and the governor’s reform commission will work together, however, is yet to be seen. So far, they’ve operated in similar hemispheres but in separate quarters. They’ve heard hours of testimony from a lot of the same witnesses, they’ve debated some of the same proposals and they’ve used the same language to define their missions. To date, they have not yet testified to each other's public hearings. And the governor’s reform commission is different in that it “has a voice but not a vote,” to borrow the words of Patrick Collins, former federal prosecutor and chair of the governor’s commission. What is realistic by the end of the spring legislative session depends on the level of support the proposals can gain from the legislative leaders and their members, although Quinn has indicated he's willing to use his executive powers to institute some of changes.

One item to note is that the House speaker and the Senate president have been meeting about once a week for breakfast with Quinn to talk about a broad range of issues facing the state, including everything from a potential $12.4 billion budget deficit to possible ethics reforms. Madigan told Illinois Issues this morning said he finds those meetings to be “very productive.” He added: “They’re not 100 percent harmonious. … There’s differences, but you’ve got people who are committed to working through differences and coming to a result.”

In terms of ethics, some of the proposals of the governor's reform commission already are being considered by the legislature. In addition to pension reforms advanced by Madigan and Cullerton, the governor’s reform commission offered two more starting points: The “pay” side (or campaign finance) and the “play” side (or state procurement), to borrow another Collins phrase. The governor’s Illinois Reform Commission will issue many more recommendations in its final report by the end of April.

Pension board reforms
Madigan and Cullerton started with pensions. Their measure, SB 364, would remove all members of the existing pension oversight boards, and Quinn would have 30 days to nominate new members. The governor would be able to nominate current members to stay, but they would have to get Senate approval. Board members currently are reimbursed for expenses but are not paid for their work, and that would remain.

While Madigan said he did not intend to accuse current members of corruption, he said it was important to start over with a “clean slate.” The measure also would require all board members to follow the same ethics standards currently applied to legislators and executive branch employees. The standards are meant to prevent conflicts of interest and so-called pay-to-play politics from influencing the investment decisions made by the pension boards, investment managers and consultants.

Similar pension reforms passed the House twice before but stalled in the Senate under then-President Emil Jones Jr.

Madigan said this morning that the pension reforms illustrate the good that can come out of cooperation between presiding officers. “The people of Illinois feel that they deserve better, and they’re right. And with myself and Sen. Cullerton working together — not trying to one-up anybody, not trying to play gotcha-politics — I think that we can accomplish a lot.”

Campaign contribution limits (The “pay” side of pay-to-play)
The Illinois Reform Commission recommends campaign contribution limits of $2,400 for individuals and $5,000 for political committees and would completely ban contributions from lobbyists and trusts. The legislature is split on the idea of campaign contributions, with opponents saying that there are too many loopholes and that it wouldn't reduce the cost of political campaigns. All four legislative leaders have said they could consider campaign finance reform, but contribution limits are not considered the priority. The legislature already is considering some measures that would limit contributions, including:
  • HB 24: Rep. Harry Osterman’s bill resembles the commission’s recommendations. He’s a Chicago Democrat.
  • SB 1768: Sen. Heather Steans’ bill would enforce similar limits for individuals and political committees that are not controlled by the candidates, but it also would cap the amount political committees for the Democratic and Republican caucuses could transfer to candidates at $30,000, among other things. She’s a Chicago Democrat.
  • SB 1548: Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno’s bill would limit donations for all individuals, political parties, corporations, unions, etc., at $10,000. She’s a Lemont Republican.
  • SB 2257: Sen. Kwame Raoul’s bill would, among other things, limit individual donations at $7,500 and corporate and labor group donations at $20,000. He’s another Chicago Democrat.

Two measures would establish a voluntary public financing system for judges and set various limits on the amount candidates could raise from individuals, political committees, corporations, labor groups, etc. They include:
  • SB 2144, sponsored by Raoul.
  • HB 1390, sponsored by freshman Rep. Will Burns, a Chicago Democrat.

Here are more highlights from the Illinois Reform Commission's recommendations for campaign finance, including extending last year’s pay-to-play ban to prevent state contractors from donating to legislators, as well as executive officers.

Procurement (The “play” side of pay-to-play)
The Illinois Reform Commission recommends the following:
  • Make the procurement officials part of an independent arm of government to shield them from political pressure.
  • Establish an independent contract monitor to review contracts and expose problematic deals.
  • Scale back exemptions to the procurement code.
  • Apply the procurement code to legislative, judicial and such quasi-governmental bodies as the Illinois Finance Authority.
  • Subject no-bid and emergency contracts to tighter scrutiny and limitations.
  • Disclose subcontractors, lobbyists and agents representing clients.
  • Document any contact between vendors or their agents and procurement staff.
  • Post all procurement information online.

Auditor General Bill Holland echoed some of the recommendations today during a special legislative hearing about state government reforms. But he added that the procurement code currently does not prevent agencies from accepting services before the terms of a contract are settled or before the contract is officially filed. He said that was “unacceptable” and said that all documents related to the contracting process, including losing proposals, should be made public.

Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat, said the state also should tighten provisions on informal advisers, something noted during the corruption trial and conviction of former Blagojevich adviser Tony Rezko.

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