SPRINGFIELD (AP) — The idea seems simple enough: Ban Illinois lawmakers from voting or taking action on anything that might benefit them personally, all in the name of honest government.
But the ethics proposal Gov. Pat Quinn outlined in his State of the State speech has sparked questions about whom it targets and whether it’s necessary as the state deals with mountainous financial problems. Some Republicans and political experts also have alleged political motives, suggesting the Chicago Democrat was simply floating the proposal to lay the groundwork for what could become a pet issue in his 2014 re-election bid.
Quinn insisted Thursday that the issue has long been his priority and said newly-sworn in lawmakers might be more receptive to such a plan.
“It’s not directed at anything other than what’s good for the people,” he said. “We have to understand that the people of Illinois come first. The office holders always have to take a back seat to what’s best for everyday people.”
Quinn zeroed in on ethics in his annual address, a roughly 40-minutes campaign-style speech that made nods to a long list of populist issues, from schools to immigration to spending. With two predecessors sent to prison for corruption, Quinn boasted about how he has cleaned up the office before announcing his proposal that would bar lawmakers from voting or taking official action deemed a conflict of interest.
Some lawmakers said they were confused by timing: Illinois traditionally enacts reforms in the wake of scandal and they expected more details on finances when Quinn has made overhauling pensions his top issue for more than a year. Illinois has a nearly $100 billion pension problem, the worst of any U.S. state.
Quinn’s plan comes at a time when Illinois once again has been reminded of its reputation for ethical challenges. Three sitting lawmakers face criminal charges — related to guns, bribery and bank fraud.
But Quinn’s plan is aimed at limiting votes cast by lawmakers who haven’t been accused of any impropriety — including lawyers, real estate agents and entrepreneurs with business interests in the state. For example, House Speaker Michael Madigan runs a Chicago law firm.
“It’s a delicate subject,” said David Morrison, an Illinois Campaign for Political Reform director. “In a political sense, to say that someone is unethical is one of the most devastating charges you can put to somebody. If voters believe you’re running to feather your own nest, it’s something that could quickly become toxic.”
At the same time, Quinn painted anti-corruption efforts as the cornerstone of his governorship. He led a petition drive against conflict of interest voting in the 1970s, collecting more than 600,000 signatures.
Both ideas could simply add up to Quinn gearing up the election season, when he’s expected to face several competitive Republican challengers and potentially a Democratic primary faceoff if former White House chief of staff Bill Daley or state Attorney General Lisa Madigan steps in.
“It’s about him asserting his credentials as a reformer,” said Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, who called the speech part of Quinn making the “case to get re-elected.”
Quinn’s proposal is still rough. It’s three basic sentences outlining ideas and doesn’t have a sponsor yet. Also, any such legislation is likely to face a cold reception in the General Assembly; a previous effort failed.
The plan also doesn’t yet define what constitutes a conflict of interest, which is a detail many political reformers and fellow lawmakers want to see before they weigh in. That’s because having expertise in an area is not always a bad thing for lawmakers, Morrison said.
“It can give them understanding of how things work outside of the Dome, but it also might give them an incentive to favor their professor over their constituents,” he said.
Still, he and other political reformers applauded the idea and said Illinois could model itself after such states as California, which has stricter and complex guidelines on the issue.
Illinois statute says when taking an official action, like a vote, a lawmaker should “consider the possibility” of eliminating the interest or abstaining from the official action. Unlike federal lawmakers who face strike provisions and can be investigated by bi-partisan ethics committee of their peers, the state law guidelines contain no provision for enforcement or penalties.
The Legislature’s inspector general, Thomas Homer, calls Illinois’ laws “somewhat farcical.”
He pushed reforms in a 2011 report he issued detailing problems, including relationships with lobbyists. A former lawmaker himself, Homer said his office received two dozen complaints last year and about half were related to potential conflicts of interest. However, Homer said his hands are tied when it comes to acting on the complaints. Any investigations must be approved by a commission and he doesn’t have power to punish or take action.
“It’s frustrating. I would think it would be a compelling agenda item in light of all of the adverse publicity given the state with such allegations,” he said. “A lot of these run-of-the mill conflicts fall through the cracks.”
Taking cues from his report, state Sen. Kirk Dillard — a Republican mulling a run for governor — last year sponsored a bill on the issue that went nowhere. He said any ethics-related legislation — sure to come up in the 2014 race — faces a legislative uphill battle.
Some lawmakers pointed out Quinn’s plan might duplicate legislation already being considered.
Democratic state Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge sponsored a bill calling for more lawmaker disclosure of economic interests. While legislators have done so for decades, the forms they use are outdated, Kotowski argues. He has proposed requiring more information — relationships with lobbyists, for example — and allowing them to be viewed online.
“The whole idea is to heighten a disclosure and avoid the kind of conflict of interest that may occur,” Kotowski said. “The governor has a good intent, but we’ve been working on this for a couple of years.”