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Citizen ethics panel suggests 34 reforms
By Nicole Milstead | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/29/2009 12:01 AM

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SPRINGFIELD - A reform commission appointed by Patrick Quinn before he became Illinois' governor placed a sweeping plan before lawmakers Tuesday designed to clean up Illinois' dirty politics.

Then the panel's leaders began trying to sell a 34-point proposal - including term limits for legislative leaders, capping political donations, strengthening public information laws and more - that is sure to conflict with ideas being developed by a joint House-Senate committee on ethics and stir up opposition among lawmakers.

"Every proposal is really something that the entire commission, all 15 of us, are embracing, and I think that is pretty extraordinary," Pat Collins, a former federal prosecutor and the head of the commission, told the Daily Herald during an hourlong discussion of the proposal Tuesday afternoon.

The group plans to focus on six major agenda items this legislative session to turn Illinois around.

"Every key proposal that we have in there, virtually every one, has been tried somewhere else, so this isn't some pie-in-the-sky, ivory tower view of government. It really is a best practices thing," said Collins.

Now it's up to Quinn and the legislature to hash out which, if any, ideas will be approved. Quinn recently called on lawmakers to bring every proposal to a full vote. He said it's a reasonable request to make of House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.

There are, however, no shortage of issues awaiting lawmakers' action as they enter the final weeks of their spring session with a $12 billion budget deficit unresolved and Quinn's proposed income tax on the table.

Democratic leaders said the proposals would get a fair shake.

"I think you'll see more agreement than disagreement by the time the session is done," said Madigan spokesman Steve Brown, pointing to the work a legislative reform commission has already done overhauling pension board members that Quinn recently signed into law.

Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Cullerton, said Collins, Quinn and the other supporters of this plan need to now turn their attention to getting it into an actual form that lawmakers can consider.

"The priority for them should be getting the legislative language to the LRB (Legislative Reference Bureau), getting their sponsors. We fully intend on have hearings on each and every one of those proposals," she said. "We would like to start having hearings on some of these things as early as next week but need the legislative language.

Here's a look at some of the top proposals:

• Limited-time leadership

Top legislative leaders, like Speaker of the House and Senate President, could preside only for 10 years. The same would hold true for minority leaders.

The point is to limit the amount of power and influence those leaders can harness. Those posts already are powerful; leaders decide which bills are voted on, who sits on what committee and which way to steer the budget. Someone who holds one of those posts for decades can amass even more power.

Michael Madigan has been House speaker since 1983, except for one two-year period. Until his recent retirement, Sen. Emil Jones led Senate Democrats for 16 years, first as minority leader and then as president.

Collins stresses that term limits are not retroactive and it was not drafted to go after Madigan.

• Smaller donations

Campaign donations would be limited to $2,400 from a person and $5,000 from political committees. Lobbyists also would be banned from giving money to political candidates, and people or businesses with state contracts would be banned from giving to members of the legislature.

Right now, donations are unlimited in Illinois. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich often collected $25,000 or $50,000 from donors - many of whom ended up with state jobs or contracts.

"We're kidding ourselves if we think that when large contributions are made that there's not something that is expected in return," said Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat and a member of a legislative ethics committee.

But other lawmakers say limiting the size of donations would force officials to spend more time raising money or give too big an advantage to rich candidates who can pay for their own campaigns.

"We are one of four states that doesn't have limits," Collins told the Daily Herald.

• Show me the money

Candidates running for election would have five days to report campaign contributions of more than $1,000 if running for state office and $500 for any other elected post.

Anyone running for political office already has to report every dollar raised and spent in an election, but the current system says they can wait as long as six months to file the report. Those delays make it impossible for the public or political opponents to link timely donations from special interests to a candidate.

Lawmakers in Springfield aren't terribly opposed to this idea, though novice candidates may be overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork they'll need to file.

• Shining a light in dark places

The Freedom of Information Act would have fewer exemptions and the General Assembly would be subject to the Open Meetings Act.

Public records are meant to be open to public inspection, but many times people are denied the right to see those documents because they fall under numerous exemptions. Under the Blagojevich administration, requests for documents were rejected left and right.

The General Assembly would also have to open itself up to public scrutiny by keeping the doors open to their normally private caucus meetings. The body is the only group exempted from the Open Meetings Act.

• Stay between the district lines

Legislative district lines would be drawn by computer instead of by a room full of lawmakers.

Shortly after the U.S. Census numbers come out every ten years, legislators get together to redraw district maps to ensure each district has the same number of people. The problem is the party in power tries to draw lines to help its members win elections.

The gerrymandering creates districts that snake around different parts of the state and that aren't truly represented by an office holder who lives in another region of Illinois.

The current redistricting system can end in a deadlock broken by random chance. That promotes a winner-take-all political map instead of compromise between the parties.

• Boosting enforcement

The Illinois Attorney General and State Police would have additional tools and authority to sniff out public corruption.

The state now leans on the federal government to investigate public corruption because law enforcement officials in Illinois don't have all the resources they need to do it themselves.

The changes would allow Attorney General Lisa Madigan to independently conduct grand jury investigations for public corruption. She now is restricted to investigations on drugs, gangs and child pornography. The state also would assemble an independent public corruption division within Illinois State Police.

Associated Press contributed to this story