Friday, May 22, 2009

If not today, Thursday?

By Bethany Jaeger and Jamey Dunn
The day that was supposed to be “Ethics Day” in the General Assembly came and went with confusing and dramatic developments that sent lawmakers and reformers back to the drawing table, with less than nine days left in the legislature’s regularly scheduled spring session.

And the legislature took Memorial Day weekend off, returning to Springfield Tuesday. And they still hope to adjourn May 29, although the actual deadline isn’t until the 31st.

Gov. Pat Quinn started the day by saying he doesn’t intend to sign a $26 billion infrastructure program until the legislature sends him an operating budget and a series of government reform measures. But movement on a significant portion of the reform measures is delayed until the day before Senate President John Cullerton hoped to adjourn.

Campaign contribution limits, for instance, were supposed to be debated today in the Senate. But a string of misunderstandings and tension-ridden conversations resulted in no action.

The Senate did agree with the House and approved two of House Speaker Michael Madigan’s measures. If signed by the governor, they would revamp the way the state buys products and services and shine more light on investigations into corruption within state government. Senate Bill 51 addresses procurement, while Senate Bill 54 addresses state employee ethics laws and lobbyist registration. The Senate did not, however, approve Madigan’s “fumigation” bill to terminate up to 750 employees appointed by former Govs. Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan.

The governor’s Illinois Reform Commission did present the first of its major proposals, which also happened to be a rather complex and controversial topic of state-level prosecution of public corruption cases. Only one of nine provisions won Senate approval today.

A visibly frustrated Collins held an impromptu news conference after a Senate hearing. “That’s not the process that we were promised,” he said after the votes. “We did not get enforcement reform today.”

According to Collins, the package was designed to give state prosecutors more ‘tools” to investigate corruption. The commission also sought greater penalties for such crimes. The amendment that met the most opposition would have expanded state’s attorneys’ authority to record conversations, including giving them power to wiretap telephones, with a judge’s approval.

Collins also advocated for making it harder for someone convicted of public corruption to get off with just probation, unless he or she cooperated with the investigation.

One attorney opposed the idea because he said it would take sentencing powers away from judges. Attorney Robert Loeb joined the Illinois Bar Association in opposing all of the commission’s the ideas because he said they would create extreme penalties for some minor offenses. He added that many aspects of the proposals already are covered by existing law.

Sen. Bill Haine, an Alton Democrat who voted “present” on all of the proposals, said that he was hesitant to greatly expand the powers of state’s attorneys because they are elected rather than appointed and might use political power to target opponents.

Sen. Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat, said he worried about giving greater eavesdropping powers to state’s attorneys because there are 102 of them throughout the state, challenging consistency in training and enforcement.

The only provision that won approval was crafted by Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat. It had no opposition.

Collins said while the legislators complained about not having enough time to consider the commission’s proposals, they approved Kotowski’s provision the same day it was filed.

Kotowski designed the measure to strike at the heart of Blagojevich’s alleged wrongdoings: his political campaign fund. The measure, which won Senate approval this afternoon and now heads to the House, would punish an individual who was convicted of public corruption the same as if he or she were a convicted drug dealer. The person would be subject to forfeiting property, assets or political funds.

“If you commit the act of corruption and graft, you’re going to lose your property, you’re going to lose your campaign fund, you’re going to lose anything that you acquired as a result of that,” Kotowski said.

Kotowski added that the commission’s enforcement provisions include rather far-reaching reforms that could take time to educate legislators and the public. “I’m not giving up on this stuff,” he said, adding that the ideas could be negotiated and brought up during the legislature’s annual fall session. “It’s not everything that we want to accomplish, not by any stretch. But it’s a really good first step, and I am excited about that.”

Campaign finance
The debate about campaign contribution limits has been bumped back to May 28 at the request of Collins, who said he needed time to negotiate an agreement between competing bills. “We’re at different places,” he said during his second Statehouse news conference of the day.

The commission proposes limiting individual donations at $2,400, while other proposals would limit them to $5,000 or $10,000. The commission also wants to limit large transfers of money from statewide political parties to their candidates. A Democratic proposal would not limit such transfers.

“Hopefully we can close that gap in the next few days,” Collins said. “And if we don’t, we’ve been assured many different ways with a lot of witnesses that we will get an up-or-down vote on the [commission’s] bill.”

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno has sponsored two different versions (a $10,000 limit and a $2,400 limit on behalf of the commission), none of which have been called for debate. She said it sounded as if Democratic leaders were trying to “run out the clock” on campaign finance limits. “I think there are people who want the status quo to continue, and those would be the people who have the majorities in this institution right now, the Democrats. They don’t want to change it.”

Senate President John Cullerton disagreed and said leadership was trying to five the commission’ time to negotiate bills. “These issues are not simple black and white issues. They require a lot of nuance.”

Efforts to strengthen the understanding and enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act are still in the works, although the Illinois Press Association and attorney general’s office expressed dissatisfaction with some water-downed versions. The Illinois Reform Commission is still trying to negotiate and could try to advance a revised measure Thursday, as well.

FYI: Here's the Illinois Reform Commission's full report.

1 comment:

Tito said...

Some of these elected officials worry about getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar, others took the cookies already and now they oppose any kind of reform legislation.

It is unfortunate that to some people Governor Quinn is not coming across as Mr. Clean now that he is governor. Some people now have a negative picture of him. What a shame to see it happen!