State Journal-Register Editorial Board
August 26, 2011
As Illinois watched its last two governors convicted on corruption charges, lawmakers responded with a series of new laws designed to clean things up, especially where the intermingling of money and politics are concerned.
Overlooked, however, has been the law concerning members of the General Assembly voting on bills that involve their personal financial interests. Or perhaps more accurately, the General Assembly has overlooked the suggestion that its members not vote on bills of personal financial consequence.
As Legislative Inspector General Thomas Homer notes in a letter he has sent to all 177 members of the Illinois General Assembly, Illinois law contains nothing to prevent lawmakers from voting on such bills other than suggesting that they recuse themselves. If they vote on such bills, there’s no threat of fines, censure or any other punishment.
“We have something like this in Congress, but we don’t have it in our state legislature,” Homer, who has been the legislative inspector general since 2003, said last week. “It’s a toothless tiger. We’ve got some rules but no way to enforce them.” Homer said he regularly gets calls about potential conflicts, but can’t pursue them because the law provides no rules.
Homer urges lawmakers to enact reforms that will more clearly define their own financial interests and will impose punishments on those who violate conflict-of-interest rules. This is perhaps the greatest no-brainer of all the reform efforts put forth in the post-George Ryan years. (Interestingly, Homer’s very office was created in 2003 in the first wave of reforms, which created inspectors general for all branches of government.)
Addressing this problem requires a two-pronged approach.
First, the legislature needs to create stronger Statements of Economic Interest, the forms that lawmakers and many other public employees must fill out to disclose their sources of income outside their legislative pay. Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, an advocate for Homer’s suggestions, calls the forms now used “practically meaningless.” This is an area the watchdog group the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform has pursued for years, noting that the current forms are vague and cursory.
This must be a detailed document that lawmakers take seriously. Voters should be able to review it and come away with a reasonable idea of where a lawmaker derives his or her income and the types of bills from which he or she should abstain from voting.
Then, of course, there must be a system for ensuring accountability.
Homer suggests that a legislative committee review possible violations and issue public reports that might lead to official censure or fines.
This is an effort that truly will test the resolve of General Assembly members to make major ethical reforms. Enacting gift restrictions on lobbyists is one thing; placing every vote they cast under much greater scrutiny is another.