Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pass of the torch

By Bethany Jaeger
Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission issued its final recommendations for reforming Illinois government, passing the torch to the state legislators to act before their scheduled May 31 adjournment. While some reform measures appear slated for widespread agreement and enactment, other provisions are more controversial and expected to take a lot more time to negotiate.

Quinn said today that if the legislature fails to act, he might resort to grassroots citizen action to place major reforms on the 2010 ballot. But the state Constitution may limit his power to change anything beyond legislative procedures. (See our next blog, “If the flame is extinguished.”)

Commission chairman Patrick Collins, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said for legislators or opponents who say the commission’s recommendations equal “pie-in-the-sky” ideas, every proposal has been tried in other states or jurisdictions. “It is no excuse to say that these can’t be done because they have been done,” he said.

Commissioner David Hoffman, inspector general for the City of Chicago, said anything short of comprehensive and bold reforms would foster more of the same. “In general, our standard is that reform should not be piecemeal, it should not be tinkering, it should not be minor.”

While commissioners are open to discussing changes with legislators, Hoffman said the commission’s final report is the measuring stick for meaningful change. (See highlights of the commission’s recommendations here.)

A few of the recommendations are new concepts for this legislature to consider, meaning lawmakers will have to build to a new comfort level before acting, said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform in Chicago. That comfort level might not come until proposals are spelled out in new legislation. “It’s not enough to describe the cake. You have to give the recipe, too,” he said.

Even for the controversial proposals, Morrison said he’s encouraged by the commission’s thorough report (the appendices alone take up 152 pages), which resulted from active engagement from people throughout the state. The commission’s effort also couples with the legislature’s special joint government reform committee. “There’s real intentional, deliberate action that may come out of this,” Morrison said.

Commissioner Brad McMillan, executive director of the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University in Peoria, spoke directly to the cynics during a Statehouse news conference this morning: “We have a new governor. We have new leadership in Springfield. We have a rare moment in time where the public believes that public corruption and ethics reform is the No. 1 issue in this state. We are hoping that this convergence will mean real, meaningful reform gets passed this legislative session.”

Law enforcement
Something new for legislators to consider is the commission’s concern that state law hamstrings state-level investigators. In turn, Illinois tends to rely on federal prosecutors to go after such public corruption cases as former Gov. George Ryan, political insider Tony Rezko and, now, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, among many others. According to the report, prosecutors in most other states have powers and resources similar to those of federal investigators. Not Illinois. The commission said this state is only one of four that prevents states investigators from recording conversations with consent of one of the parties.

Also, the Illinois attorney general can convene a statewide grand jury to investigate some crimes but not cases of public corruption. That contrasts with Pennsylvania and most other states, according to the report.

Morrison said the idea of strengthening the powers of state prosecutors was one of the “most inspiring” recommendations. “We plainly cannot rely on federal law enforcement to police Illinois politics,” he said. “We need something that’s going to move faster than that.” It took prosecutors more than seven years to prosecute and convict Ryan.

Legislative reaction
Legislators are expected to debate some of the proposals soon, but Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie said the commission’s recommendations are “not necessarily the Holy Grail.”

“Just because the Collins commission says jump, it’s not our responsibility to say, ‘How high?’” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said areas ripe for change include those where Illinois lags behind other states. She said some issues, including beefing up the Freedom of Information Act or cleaning up state contracting practices, could move quickly. Others, including campaign contribution limits, could take longer. “Some of the things we’ve already kind of vetted, and now we need to act,” she said. “Others we need to vet for the first time.”

Limiting the length of time state legislative leaders can serve in the top positions, for instance, hasn’t been debated. And it’s unlikely to find traction any time soon.

Limiting the amount individuals and political committees can donate to politicians has been debated, but it’s far from a consensus. Democratic Sen. Susan Garrett of Lake Forest said however controversial, she expects campaign contribution limits to get to the Senate floor for debate. “Absolutely, yes. I can’t imagine there not being a vote. I think every independent commission that is testifying across the state and hearing from different elected officials, the trend is, yes, Illinois needs to have caps on contributions.”

The amount of the cap is at least one sticking point. “We may be voting for two or three different caps,” Garrett added.

On the other hand, procurement, or the way the state contracts with service providers, is one area where widespread agreement could expedite reforms. But legislators are unlikely to go as far as recommended by the Illinois Reform Commission, which suggests pulling out all chief procurement officers and putting them into a new, independent state agency. Procurement officers expressed concerns last week about whether new rules would slow down an already cumbersome process.

Rep. Renee Kosel, a New Lenox Republican, said: “I think it is essential that we do all of it. Otherwise, you’re just going to leave ways to go around it.”

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