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Pros and cons of reform recommendations
By Dan Carden | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/18/2009 12:11 AM

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What's been done

• In 2008, lawmakers barred companies with state contracts from donating to the campaigns of those who award the contracts. Federal prosecutors say conversations they intercepted show former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was racing to raise as much money as possible before the law took effect Jan. 1.

• Lawmakers impeached and ousted Blagojevich citing not only his December arrest on federal corruption charges but also his repeated violations of constitutional powers and state contracting and hiring laws. He's the first governor every removed from office in Illinois history.

• House and Senate passed and Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a proposal that fired all members of state pension boards and the head of the Teachers Retirement System. Those boards had been the subjects of federal investigations under Blagojevich.

• House and Senate approved changes to state lawmakers' pension system to prevent members from leaving, taking a high paying state job for a few weeks and then getting their pension based on that higher pay. The new plan would make lawmakers the same as other state employees, whose pensions are based on the highest four-year average out of their last 10 years of employment.

What's next

• A Senate committee is expected to begin taking up ethics reform proposals on Monday.

• Legislative leaders have said they expect most to be approved. The General Assembly's spring session is scheduled to end on May 31.

Find out more

• Who's your lawmaker: www.elections.il.gov/DistrictLocator/SelectSearchType.aspx?NavLink=1

• The Illinois General Assembly: www.ilga.gov

• Illinois Reform Commission: www.reformillinoisnow.org/

SPRINGFIELD - Shortly before becoming governor, Pat Quinn assembled the Illinois Reform Commission and asked members to report back in 100 days with recommendations for changing the political culture in the state. That report is now being weighed by lawmakers. Although the report itself contains more than 40 specific ideas, here's a look at six general themes.

Campaign finance

In order to eliminate even the appearance of "pay-to-play" politics, where big campaign donors get big state contracts, the reform commission recommends limiting the amount of money donors can contribute to political campaigns. For example, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich raised more than one-third of his campaign money from only 435 donors who each gave more than $25,000. Some of these donors later landed seats on state boards or commissions. The reform commission also suggests creating a public financing system where taxpayers would pay for election campaigns.

PRO: Campaign limits would limit or block contractors and lobbyists from donating to politicians in a position to reward those donors. The federal government and 46 other states already have campaign donation limits. Public financing of campaigns would reduce the influence of large donors and lead to more candidates running in elections.

CON: Federal donation limits have not prevented dozens of Congressional campaign finance scandals as big donors always can find a way to get money to candidates. Wealthy candidates can still self-finance their campaigns and outspend a candidate supported by taxpayer funds. Illinois' budget is already $12 billion out of whack. Unable to pay bills, can the state afford to pay for campaigns?

Procurement

The state of Illinois spends billions of dollars a year buying everything from soap and toilet paper for state Capitol bathrooms to new cars for state police officers. The state already has a process in place that is intended to get the best deal for the taxpayers of Illinois. But the reform commission documented numerous examples of Blagojevich and former Gov. George Ryan manipulating the procurement process to reward their political allies and punish opponents. With so much money at stake, the commission suggests insulating procurement entirely from the influence by elected officials.

PRO: An insulated, central, independent procurement office would be run by professionals and not be influenced by the political process. That means the state would get better products at a better price. A central procurement Web site would increase transparency by posting all state contracts in one place and vendors would be required to disclose connections to state officials. An independent monitor would ensure the procurement process works as it's supposed to.

CON: An insulated procurement officer wouldn't be accountable to publicly elected representatives. That means one person could spend billions of taxpayer dollars every year with no accountability to taxpayers. The oversight office would be funded through a 0.1 percent fee on every state contract, which adds up to millions of dollars a year. A procurement office could increase the red tape on state contracts and would require new employees to implement.

Enforcement

State's attorneys in Illinois and the state attorney general need new powers to crack down on corruption in state government. Both Ryan and Blagojevich were prosecuted by federal authorities. If state and local prosecutors had the same powers as their federal counterparts, corruption might be stopped at the state level before the federal government had to investigate. The commission recommends giving state's attorneys expanded wiretap powers and making significant corruption convictions not available for probation.

PRO: Illinois shouldn't have to rely on the federal government to catch its corrupt elected officials. By giving additional wiretap power to prosecutors, corruption could be caught earlier and prosecuted more easily. Those officials convicted of corruption would have to serve their full terms in prison just like any other serious criminal.

CON: State's attorneys are elected officials and could use expanded wiretap powers on political opponents. Similarly, state officials have repeatedly deferred to federal prosecutors in corruption investigations to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. It's unlikely corrupt officials will be deterred by additional state investigative powers since their actions are already illegal under federal law.

Government structure

In order to ensure state government genuinely represents the people of Illinois, the state should create a fairer redistricting process, establish term limits for legislative leaders and give legislative proposals with a certain number of supporters automatic consideration. Removing politicians from the redistricting process could lead to fairer, more competitive elections. Limiting the terms of legislative leaders, such as House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has been in charge for more than two decades, will give more power to individual lawmakers.

PRO: District lines drawn by a computer would lead to more candidates competing in more competitive elections. Instead of always re-electing incumbents, voters would get to choose from many candidates in races for Congress and the state legislature. Term limits for leaders would get new people in control of the chamber much more often and make the leaders less powerful than they are today.

CON: More candidates running in more-competitive races will require candidates to spend more money in election races. Leader term limits could backfire. Madigan is the only leader who stood up to Blagojevich and stopped him from gaining control of nearly $30 billion in project spending. A new, less-experienced leader might not be so willing to say "no" to a governor.

Transparency

In order for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable the state must be transparent in everything it does. That means Illinois needs a stronger Freedom of Information Act with fewer exemptions. Officials who improperly deny requests for information should be fined. The state should limit what elected bodies can do behind closed doors. An Office of Transparency will ensure the new laws are being followed.

PRO: With less information kept private by elected officials and boards, the public will be able to better monitor what their representatives are doing. Greater transparency means there will be fewer opportunities for corrupt officials to cover up their misdeeds. Fining officials who hide behind FOIA in order to keep documents secret will finally give the state FOIA some teeth.

CON: Elected officials and employees at all levels of government will need training in how to comply with new FOIA and open meetings laws. An Office of Transparency can provide that training, but as a new level of bureaucracy, it will require new state employees.

Inspiring better government

State employees serve on the front lines of state government, but the state personnel system does not ensure the hiring, promotion and retention of the best employees. Illinois needs to hire people who can do the job the best, rather than hiring people with connections to state officials. An independent patronage monitor should be appointed to watch for hiring abuses, and nonpolitical positions should not be influenced by political considerations. State employees should not be able to make campaign contributions to constitutional officers.

PRO: Taking politics out of the hiring process will lead to more professional, competent and capable state employees. If state employees aren't dependent on patronage to get and keep their jobs, they won't do their jobs with an eye toward keeping their political sponsor happy. With a more understandable hiring process, the state will get better employees.

CON: Creating a patronage monitor will add to state bureaucracy. Some jobs should remain "political" so that a governor or other statewide official can surround himself or herself with loyal employees who'll carry out policy changes.