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A patriotic agenda: Make elected officials report income 

 

Chicago Sun Times
By Lt. Governor Sheila Simon
July 1, 2011

Hot dogs, hamburgers and reform. That’s what we’re asking for this patriotic holiday.

After Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008, we got a first crack at reform. Now that the former governor has been convicted on 17 counts of corruption, we should get real change.

I served on the Illinois Reform Commission, which helped spur the first-ever caps on campaign contributions in Illinois, new state purchasing rules and stronger freedom of information laws.

But many of our recommendations were too disruptive to politics as usual, and they were shelved.

With Blagojevich now facing prison time for his self-enrichment schemes, it is time to renew our efforts at reform.

The place to start is with the pocketbooks of our political leaders. If you hold elected office or make decisions on where tax dollars are spent, you should be required by law to report your sources of income. That means your government salary and money from other jobs, government contracts, rental properties and market investments.

Citizens need this information to judge whether elected officials are serving the public interest — or self-interest. As our laws are written now, the public cannot tell.

The second step is to make sure the information is easy for people to find. It should go online in a searchable database like the one that Cook County Clerk David Orr recently launched, and it should be available at no cost to watchdog groups and taxpayers alike.

Critics say this would scare too many people away from public service — that you shouldn’t hold the dogcatcher, the school board member and the governor to the same standard of scrutiny.

In Illinois, we have no shortage of people looking for government work or running for office. And if we scare off a few ethically skittish candidates, so be it.

Citizens should know if their dog catcher is a double dipper, if their school board member is a textbook consultant, and — as we learned in our most recent courtroom drama ­— if the governor has income from people wanting to do business with the state.

Honest and open government should be a given for hardworking taxpayers anywhere in our country. Unfortunately, in Illinois, where two out of our last three governors have been convicted of corruption, the public does not live with that expectation.

We have come to expect too little.

When I was sworn in as lieutenant governor, I pledged to make government more accountable, accessible and transparent. To do so, I released a personal financial statement showing my household’s net worth, and my senior staff provided financial disclosures beyond what is required by law. These are easy steps we took to earn the public’s trust, but there is so much more to do.

A jury has decided that Blagojevich deserved a guilty sentence. Now the rest of us need to decide that we deserve better. We deserve regular access to detailed financial records of our elected officials.

That ought to start some fireworks.

 

Sheila Simon is Illinois’ lieutenant governor and a former member of the Southern Illinois University School of Law faculty.