IS THIS CHANGE ILLINOIS CAN BELIEVE IN?

How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: the light bulb has to want to change.  The same thing might be said for the great state of Illinois, where our reporter Matt Blake has been taking a close look at political culture and the recent reform initiatives of Governor Pat Quinn. -NH

By Matthew Blake

If there was a silver lining in the spectacular Rod Blagojevich pay-to-play scandal, it was that Illinois might finally revamp a political system that saw its past two governors arrested on federal corruption charges. When Blagojevich departed, the New York Times hailed his successor, former Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, as the “anti-Blagojevich,” whose “straight as an arrow reputation” could clean up Illinois. In his first month, Quinn created an Illinois Reform Commission that would prescribe what needs to change.

Quinn chose Pat Collins, a former federal prosecutor who had nailed Blagojevich’s predecessor Republican George Ryan in Ryan’s 2006 corruption trial, to head the commission.  By the end of April, Collins and his commission had produced a sweeping blueprint for reducing the influence of money in Illinois politics. Good government groups showered praise on the surprisingly idealistic document (“Legislative solutions must be accompanied by a corresponding change in attitudes,” the reform commission declared.). In its spring legislative session, though, the Illinois General Assembly cast a jaded eye on the commission’s work and passed a disingenuous version of campaign finance reform. And Quinn, faced with a state fiscal crisis, expended little political capital to help his own commission.

But the commission did lay out a blueprint for reform and politicians will, in all likelihood, have to explain why they haven’t advanced its recommendations.  “What we did accomplish was to put reform in the minds of voters as an issue,” says Collins. “That it is an issue that is not going to go away and that elected officials have to take seriously.”

Springtime for Reform

Quinn gave Collins (now in private practice at the Chicago law firm Perkins Cole) leeway in picking the fourteen commission members and allowed it 100 days to investigate what systemic problems helped lead to the Ryan and Blagojevich scandals. Collins returned with a comprehensive and readable report that details most of what is wrong with Illinois politics and outlines legislative remedies. It gives an itemized list of where Illinois falls short in its campaign finance laws. It prescribes how the state can curb corruption in government contracting. It suggests 14-year term limits for legislative leadership positions (Speaker of the Illinois House Michael Madigan has held that position since 1983, save for two years when the Republicans controlled the chamber). And it connects, if at times heavy-handedly, specific legal flaws with the general cynicism  Illinois citizens have for their government. In a paean to a more engaged public the commission writes, “We must also reform our attitudes about government and ultimately ourselves.”

“It was very ambitious,” says Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he directs the good-government Sunshine Projects. “It dealt with ethics reform, campaign finance reform, legislative re-districting, freedom of information, and state investigative and oversight powers.”  Other good government advocates agreed. “The members of the commission were pretty effective in putting together a diverse amount of recommendations,” says Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizens Advocacy Center.

Such praise, though, is matched by apprehension that many of the reforms will never be enacted. The Illinois General Assembly (which is divided into a 118-member House and 59-member Senate, with both chambers Democratic-controlled) had a month to act on reform recommendations before its spring session ended May 31. For Quinn and legislative leaders, political reform was a secondary issue. Quinn mainly used the session to debate how to balance the budget in a state more than $10 billion in debt. He spent much of the time trying to convince the legislature, press and public that a 50 percent across the board income tax raise from three percent to 4.5 percent is a necessary evil. A balanced budget has still not materialized (Several calls to Quinn’s office were not returned by the end of Friday. A spokeswoman pointed out that, “He’s really busy with the budget right now.”).

Meanwhile, the legislature pushed to pass a $26 billion construction program after six years in which Blagojevich signed not a single infrastructure-spending bill. The legislative session laid bare a harsh reality: Quinn runs a state that both needs to change its political culture and is also unable to provide the substantive goods of government: safe roads, open health clinics, adequately-funded schools. “I don’t envy Quinn inheriting a state with no money and no public confidence,” says Cindy Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Quinn did help shepherd two key pieces of the commission’s multiple recommendations. “Quinn decided to get half a loaf instead of a full loaf,” says Collins. The first bill that cleared the House and Senate governs state contracts, traditionally a source of corruption and waste in the state.  In what might be called the George Ryan Anti-corruption Act, the bill adopted the commission’s guidelines for contracting out public services to private companies without (Ryan is in federal prison for the illegal sale of government contracts). The bill, for example, creates a government procurement agency with a procurement officer appointed not by the governor but an independent executive branch commission.

Second, the House and Senate passed an open records law making it easier for people to submit Freedom of Information Act requests. “We took away the hiding places,” argues Steve Brown, spokesman for Speaker of the House Michael Madigan.  Redfield of the Sunshine Project agrees, but notes that the legislature allowed loopholes to remain for state lawmakers – but not other government employees. “The changes related to FOIA were positive,” he says. “But this doesn’t much impact the general assembly. It’s much more of an issue for state and local government agencies and bureaucrats. If you’re a county clerk or work for a mayor, the FOIA changes hit you more directly.” The same argument can be made to a lesser extent about procurement reform: state contracting scandals put the spotlight on the governor and the state agencies that reward contractors. But it’s harder to search for the links between procurement shenanigans and state legislators.

Well-Intentioned People

Otherwise, the commission’s recommendations have yet to get an airing. And one big proposal is already dead: a strengthening of anti-corruption laws.  For example, the reform commission wanted to allow conversations to be wiretapped with the consent of just one party. It wanted to create an anti-corruption division in the state police department, a sort of Illinois FBI. And the commission wanted to provide more prosecutorial power to state attorneys. These proposals died in one Senate subcommittee session and there is a feeling that the commission overreached. “Their approach was politically tin-eared,” says Dennis Rendleman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield legal studies program. “It failed to take into account the realpolitik nature of Illinois. It was almost a utopian perspective as if the state were starting from scratch.” Legislative leaders, meanwhile, claimed empowering state prosecutors, who are elected officials, is a problem. “Our state attorneys are political individuals,” says Toby Trimmer, spokesman for John Cullerton, the president of the Illinois Senate. “I think there was some concern that investigations or wiretaps would be used in a more political fashion than would be palatable.”

Some say the commission overreached, but its proposals largely duplicate enforcement powers in federal law and the laws of many other states. Trimmer hedged when I mentioned this. “It’s an easy soundbite to say a number of other states have these provisions,” he said. “But those are provisions Illinois isn’t comfortable with at this point.”  The legislature was also uncomfortable adopting the commission’s campaign finance reform recommendations. Here, leadership in the General Assembly basically accuses the commission of naiveté. “You ask if there is a pay-to-play ban now,” said Trimmer, in reference to lawmakers who reward companies and individuals who donate to their political campaigns. “Well, is there to pay-to-play in Washington? Corrupt people will do corrupt things.”

Said Madigan spokesman Brown, of House speaker Madigan’s office: “[These] comments come from well-intentioned people who have no experience in the operation of government or activity in political campaigns. People who want limits in campaign contributions have a lot of the time never made a donation to a political candidate. So how do they know how to set the rules for a candidate?” But Brown’s argument hardly takes into account that people in Illinois are largely dissatisfied with the operation of politics. A  January 2009survey done by the Washington, D.C.-based Joyce Foundation found that 18 percent of Illinois residents said the state was headed in the “right direction.” Seventy-eight percent said it was on the “wrong track.” The majority of respondents thought that Blagojevich’s behavior is “common among public officials in Illinois.”

Quinn touted the campaign finance legislation that passed the General Assembly at the end of May as something of a historic triumph – “Never in the history of Illinois, the state has been around since 1818, have we had such far-reaching campaign finance reform,” he told the state legislature. But when it came to campaign finance Illinois really was starting from scratch: it is one of four states with no limits on what an individual can give to a political campaign. The new legislation does set an individual contribution limit of $5,000. But that is one of the highest limits of any state, according to Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an attorney at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice who specializes in campaign finance law. One comparison is to individual contributions for federal candidates, president and U.S. Congress, which are capped at $2,300.

But at least there is a clear individual contribution limit. Political action committees, meanwhile, can donate $90,000 to a candidate and provide unlimited “in-kind” contributions. In-kind contributions – like direct mail solicitations or providing staff support on behalf of a campaign –  let party leaders apply their clout to political candidates. “Michael Madigan can transfer just $90,000 to a candidate” from a Democratic Party PAC, explains Redfield. “But he can spend an unlimited amount on behalf of the campaign. He can do what on the federal level is called a coordinated expenditure.”  While U.S. representatives and senators are subject to limits on in-kind contributions, Redfield says “here there are no limits.” And there are yet other loopholes:  the contribution limits are not for one election cycle but for one calendar year. “An incumbent governor can spend $90,000 per year from their political action committee each year for four years,” points out Redfield. “Often challengers don’t do serious fundraising until the year of the election. The incumbent gets four bites of the apple and the challenger gets one.” Finally, these campaign finance laws don’t even go into effect until 2011, after the 2010 elections – which includes Quinn’s bid for re-election.

The dreary campaign finance law makes Illinois compare unfavorably not just with other states but also with other states that have been through sensational corruption scandals. Torres-Spelliscy compares Illinois unfavorably with Connecticut, for example, where three-term governor John Grosvenor Rowland went to prison in 2005 after state contractors renovated his cottage for free. “Connecticut had its governor go to jail and in response they did a comprehensive reform,” she says. “They did pay-to-play restrictions on lobbyists and state contractors.” Illinois has cracked down on state contractors. But despite not one, but two gubernatorial scandals, the state’s political leadership is remarkably blasé about trying to change the role of money in political campaigns. “The package gave the politicians cover – they did something,” says Andy Shaw, executive director of the Chicago-based Better Government Association.  “But it did almost nothing to end the ‘pay to play’ culture.”

Accountability In ’10?

There’s hope, though, that the commission’s specific recommendations and broader vision may have a shelf life beyond one legislative session. Collins hopes that the commission will raise the expectations of Illinois residents. “I’m very proud that a commission has set a bar,” he says. “I think if you ask the person on the street if meaningful campaign reform passed I think a lot of the folks would say no.”  And ultimately, more citizen engagement will be needed to make Illinois a functionally and honestly governed state. “The ‘good government guys’ at the BGA and other reform-minded organizations will keep demanding more transparency and an end to waste, fraud, cronyism and patronage in jobs and contracts,” says Shaw.  “But the system will only change when an army of angry citizens rally behind organizations like ours and demand good government, and then punish the politicians who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.”

Less dramatically, the Republican minority in the state legislature has decided to run with the commission’s recommendations while disavowing the commission’s founder, Democratic Governor Quinn. “Quinn talked a good game,” says Christine Radagno, the top state Senate Republican. “But when he got pushback from Democratic legislative leaders, he folded.” Both Radagno and Tom Cross, the House Republican leader, have asserted that Quinn’s failure to get clean-government reforms through the legislature goes hand-in-hand with his inability to pass a budget. “Until people can trust Illinois government again,” says Sarah Wojicki, spokeswoman for Cross.  “It will be difficult for Quinn to go to the people and ask for more money.”

Regardless of their motives, the GOP may keep the reform recommendations simmering through the 2010 elections. They’ve already thought of a reminder that politics in Illinois desperately needs to shape up. “Blagojevich will have his trial next spring,” says Radagno. “So maybe we can re-focus on the issue then.”

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