December 2, 2012
Transparency is a popular political buzzword these days. Why not bring the concept to state and local government?
Is Illinois ready for ethics reform?
Voters, watching an endless parade of politicians marching off to jail and/or disgrace, say yes-yes. But our legislators in the Illinois House and Senate say no-no. They like things just the way they are.
Fortunately, legislators can be subject to pressure from the folks back home, so there's no telling what they'll do if enough people call their attention to the current shortcomings in the system and ask for tougher rules.
That's why legislation being promoted by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and state Sen. Daniel Kotowski of Mt. Prospect, both Democrats, could be helpful.
They're proposing legislation that would toughen current financial disclosure requirements for public officials and candidates for public office.
Actually, it would probably be more accurate to describe the current requirements as "nondisclosure." The so-called statement of economic interests are called "none" sheets by the folks in the know because people who fill them out generally respond with "none" or "not applicable" to the eight questions posed.
In a stunning statistic released by Simon's office, it was revealed "none" or "not applicable" was the response to 75 percent of the answers to the questions on state forms. Simon said that the same answers were given 85 percent of the time in Cook County.
In other words, the disclosure forms don't disclose much, if anything, either because the questions are so vague as to be easily avoided or people filling the forms out do not fear being held accountable for their misstatements.
That's not unlike judicial disclosure forms. Judges are required to fill out reports detailing their outside income and reveal any possible conflicts of interest or violations of rules of judicial conduct. But no one checks the forms.
What Simon and Kotowski propose is a much more thorough set of questions that would seek information on officials' outside employment, relationships with lobbyists and more exact details about the type and size of investments people hold.
It's hard to determine possible conflicts of interest if you don't know what interests could be in conflict. More complete disclosure would make a huge difference.
Given the political realities in Springfield, it's especially helpful that Simon and Kotowski belong to the majority party that controls the governor's office and the General Assembly.
Republicans simply do not have the political strength to pass this legislation. If they tried on their own, Democrats might view it as just another partisan effort to embarrass the party in power.
That said, however, no one should be naive about these kind of disclosure requirements. Many politicians prefer to operate in the shadows, and they despise anything that smacks of increased accountability.
So while the proposal has merit and Simon and Kotowski have some political leverage on their side, it's hardly a sure thing that legislators will be favorably disposed to pass their bill.
Public opinion about Illinois politics is so poisoned at the moment, it's hard to imagine that most people wouldn't welcome a sincere effort to clean up the process a bit. On the other hand, change comes hard and many legislators, protected from voters' wrath by gerrymandered districts that virtually guarantee their re-election, might just be inclined to say no.
Further complicating the issue is that Democratic Party leaders, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, can block the legislation if they so choose.
It's our hope that area legislators — Democrats and Republicans — will see the value in what Simon and Kotowski are trying to do and hop on board this good-government measure.
By working together on this proposal, area state Reps. Naomi Jakobsson and Chad Hays and state Sens. Michael Frerichs, Jason Barickman and Chapin Rose can help organize a bipartisan effort to lift Illinois' politics out of the gutter.