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Suburban lawmakers largely agree on proposed reforms
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/17/2009 12:04 AM | Updated: 5/22/2009 10:12 AM

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SPRINGFIELD - Responding to a Daily Herald survey, suburban lawmakers overwhelmingly support the bulk of the ideas put forth in a recent ethics reform report that good-government groups are trying to enact in the wake of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's arrest, impeachment and ouster from office.

With one former governor - Republican George Ryan - already in prison and now Blagojevich facing trial on federal corruption charges, several lawmakers say there's no better time to begin trying to change the state's oft-maligned political reputation.

Most of the 47 lawmakers from the Daily Herald's readership area, which stretches from Naperville's southern tip northward to Gurnee, said they were in favor of restricting campaign donations, limiting how long legislative leaders can serve, hiring a state contracting czar, giving local prosecutors powers similar to those of their federal counterparts, reducing the ranks of political hires and overhauling the political mapmaking process.

The general proposals were contained in a nearly 90-page report recently issued by an ethics commission appointed by Pat Quinn shortly before he became governor in the wake of Blagojevich's ouster. The commission, led by former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, came up with more than 40 specific recommendations and Collins has called on lawmakers to enact them all.

Lawmakers say they could start doing that this week. Several members have repeatedly said they fully expect action, if not approval, on just about every area raised in the report.

"It's not us against them, which is how it's been portrayed," said state Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat actively working on legislation intended to make government more transparent to taxpayers. "We're not that bad after all."

Prosecutorial powers

The most contentious issue among those surveyed was the idea of giving county prosecutors greater powers to eavesdrop and wiretap in much the same way federal authorities go after corruption. Out of the 47 suburban lawmakers surveyed, a dozen said "no" to the idea and another 10 had serious questions or were unsure.

"While I am supportive of the concept of statewide grand juries, giving elected county prosecutors - who are politicians - the power to wiretap other politicians and citizens should raise concerns for every Illinoisan," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat.

"How far will 'big brother' go?" asked state Sen. Carole Pankau, an Itasca Republican.

Similarly, Marengo Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks said strict safeguards would be needed to prevent local prosecutors from using their powers for Nixonian political shenanigans.

State Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr., a Mundelein Republican, said he'd support the added powers so long as there were severe penalties for overly ambitious state's attorneys who abuse them.

Others questions what the tab would be for taxpayers to provide the resources needed to responsibly carry out these new powers.

"U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has done a superb job of rooting out corruption in Illinois," said state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat. "One of the reasons for his success has been the fact that he has the resources of the U.S. government, including the FBI, to support his investigation."

Leader Limits

There was a similar split among some suburban lawmakers on the idea of a 10-year limit on how long a lawmaker can serve as a leader in the House or Senate. There currently are no such restrictions and House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, has led the Democrats in his chamber for the better part of three decades. The leadership in the other three posts has turned over at least once during the last 10 years.

Supporters say the limits would prevent entrenched political leadership. Most of those surveyed agreed with the restriction. Of note, lawmakers elect their leaders and can, and have, decided to go with new leadership when enough of them are dissatisfied.

But 10 suburban lawmakers questioned the practical implications of putting such limits in law. Some noted that Madigan was the only legislative leader to stand up to Blagojevich and block him from getting control of an additional $30 billion for construction spending.

"I think this proposal would have unintended consequences that may shift power to lobbyists and career bureaucrats who would not be directly accountable to the people of Illinois," said state Rep. Mark Walker, an Arlington Heights Democrat.

To be truly meaningful, such limits are likely to require a constitutional amendment, which voters statewide would have to approve for it to take effect. The soonest that vote would occur would be next fall.

Gov. Pat Quinn, however, indicated he'd be OK with self-imposed limits. Quinn was the person who assembled the ethics commission and put Collins in charge of it.

"If the House and Senate adopt rules for a reasonable rotation, it wouldn't bother me none," Quinn said.

Members of Congress from states without true term limits have repeatedly broken such voluntary limits.

Contract czar

There was also notable dissent over the reform commission's call for a new, high level procurement monitor who, once named by a governor and approved by lawmakers, is insulated almost entirely from them. The contracting czar would have jurisdiction over all contracts and the process they go through. To pay for this new department, the reform commission proposed a 0.1 percent "integrity charge" on every state contract. That way, lawmakers and the governor couldn't cut the department's budget.

Given the massive amount of contracting the state does, the charge could produce millions of dollars for this new office, and some lawmakers questioned whether another layer of bureaucracy was the answer.

"We don't need another layer of taxpayer-funded bureaucracy headed by another political appointee to oversee the issuing of contracts," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat. "The state needs to enforce its current rules, and that process can be strengthened by added penalties for those violating the law."

"Adding another layer is not saving money," said state Rep. Tim Schmitz, a Batavia Republican.

State Sen. Dan Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican, said a central contracting person is not a guarantee against abuse, noting that Gov. Blagojevich essentially tried to do the same thing with more sinister motivations.

June Primary

While most suburban lawmakers were fine with moving the primary to June from its current February slot, 10 said they'd oppose the change and two were unsure of the move.

State Rep. Franco Coladipietro, a Bloomingdale Republican, supported moving the primary election back in order to shorten the campaign season, but said the June date recommended by the reform commission is problematic as it would put primary season in the heart of the General Assembly's spring session.

Others are open to the idea but noted Illinois just moved its primary up in an attempt to boost Barack Obama's presidential campaign and try to make Illinois a political player in primary season, which has continually crept earlier nationally.

"I am willing to consider changing the primary, but February 2008 did produce the largest primary turnout in our state's history," said state Rep. Keith Farnham, an Elgin Democrat.

Other Reforms

There was uniform or near uniform support among suburban lawmakers for limiting campaign donations, changing the redistricting process, imposing penalties on those who thwart public records disclosure and reducing the number of political jobs in government.

"We will have campaign caps," said state Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Brook Democrat.

State Rep. Randy Ramey, a Carol Stream Republican, was the lone dissenter on this topic. His position is that all donations over $500 should immediately be reported to state elections officials for public disclosure. That currently happens only in the final weeks of a campaign.

Others admitted being reluctant supporters.

"I will vote for limits but no one should be fooled into thinking that contribution limits take money out of politics," said state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat. "We have had limits at the federal level for over 30 years and campaign costs and the amount of time candidates spend raising money has increased exponentially."

State Sen. Chris Lauzen, an Aurora Republican, said he'd vote "yes" for limiting campaign donations but said such limits "have failed utterly and miserably at the federal level," and other reforms, such as moving back the primary elections and overhauling redistricting, will reduce the role of money in politics.

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