Ethics commission, watered down disclosure bill head to governor

11/14/2019

House Democratic Leader Gregory Harris, of Chicago, explains two ethics proposals that emerged in the House on Thursday, the final day of the 2019 veto session at the Capitol in Springfield. Also seated at the table is Democratic caucus staff attorney Margaret Livingston. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock)

House Republicans grudgingly support proposals they claim are partisan, lacking

By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
Jnowicki@capitolnewsillinois.com

SPRINGFIELD – A pair of ethics reform bills passed both chambers Thursday at the Illinois Statehouse despite claims from Republicans that the measures were watered down, partisan and diversionary.

While most House Republicans voted in favor of a resolution creating an ethics reform commission, which passed, 111-4, and a bill to require greater lobbyist disclosure, which passed, 110-5, they bombarded Democrats with criticism during floor debate.

Many Republicans listed ethics bills they filed as early as January and as late as this week, many of which had not received a committee hearing or even been assigned to committee. 

“Clearly, this is a last ditch effort to appear to be doing something on ethics, which I applaud that we’re finally going to do something on ethics,” Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, said while questioning whether the new commission would actually deliver results.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, questioned why language adding requirements to lawmakers’ statements of economic interest was removed from the lobbyist disclosure bill, Senate Bill 1639, by a late amendment Thursday.

Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, who carried the bill in the House, said economic interest disclosures would be discussed by the commission created in House Joint Resolution 93.

“Do we really need a commission to be able to come up with a solution that is, I would say, practical but also the right thing to do?” Durkin asked. “… I’ve seen commissions come and go over the years. Many of us look at those commissions with jaundiced eyes because generally they don’t produce the positive results that we think are important.”

The commission’s role would be to study ethics reforms and report their recommendations on specific pieces of legislation to lawmakers, who would have the ultimate authority to enact the measures.

It would be made up of two appointees each from the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, two from the secretary of state including the inspector general of that office, two from the attorney general including the inspector general of that office, and four from the governor, who can appoint no more than two members from any party.

Republicans in the Senate supported the lobbyist disclosure measure, which passed by a 48-0 vote, but unanimously pulled support for the commission, citing what they believe is a partisan makeup. That measure passed 32-18.

Republicans argued the appointees would create a 10-6 Democratic slant to the commission because the secretary of state’s and attorney general’s offices are both controlled by Democrats.

Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat who filed the bill, said the appointees from those offices would be staff members, and they would not carry a political party designation.

Still, Republicans pulled support when the bill came to the floor.

“Today, the Senate Republicans Caucus is united in support of real ethics reform, which is why we stand in opposition to HJR 93. Despite assurances from Democrat leaders that this would be a balanced, bipartisan task force, what was filed is a nothing but a Democrat-controlled commission that will not bring about the changes this state needs to restore the people’s trust in their state legislature,” the Senate Republican caucus said in a release. “With the cloud of scandal hanging over the dome we need to be taking up serious ethics reforms not punting to another partisan task force.”

After the afternoon committee, Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, told reporters the commission would study several of the ethics bills brought forth by Republicans which have thus far not received a committee hearing.

When asked why lobbyist pay disclosure wasn’t included in the lobbyist reform measure which passed later in the day, Cullerton referenced the commission.

“We are being asked to pass bills right away. And we're being asked to put together a commission to study what bills we should have, you see?” Cullerton said. “So when you start to get more technical. … What does the secretary of state's office have to say about requiring? … What about the state board of elections? Maybe we should have campaign contributions also in the same database. That's what the commission is supposed to study. … We're trying to do this in a deliberative way. That's all.”

He said the commission is due to report to the Legislature in March, but it can make intermittent reports on bills that could be enacted more quickly.

“If they come up with low-hanging fruit, …  if that’s indeed what it is, they can make that recommendation,” Cullerton said.

Responding to questions, Cullerton said the commission would study issues such as strengthening the legislative inspector general’s office and banning lawmakers from lobbying local governments.

When asked if the General Assembly would take up any ethics bills without the commission studying them first, he pointed to the bill discussed in committee which was lambasted on the floor as watered down by Republicans.  

“You see what I'm saying, … you've got low-hanging fruit, if you want to call it that. People have different definitions of what that is, what we're passing today, hopefully. And then you've got the commission that would study recommendations for other legislation,” he said.

He did not identify any other “low-hanging fruit” and no ethics legislation was discussed in the committee aside from the commission and Senate Bill 1639, which passed later in the day after being weakened by a House amendment.

The version of Senate Bill 1639 that did pass requires primary lobbyists to specifically identify each client of any lobbyist that is listed as their subcontractor in state databases. It also requires any state lobbyist to disclose any unit of local government they lobby for and any elected or appointed office they hold.

It also directs the secretary of state to create a publicly accessible and searchable database which brings together lobbying disclosures, contributions by registered lobbyists and statements of economic interest filed by state officials.

During a separate, unrelated news conference earlier in the day, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the bills moving Thursday were “just the beginning.”

“Let me be clear that we're not going to tolerate people who engage in that kind of corruption and self-dealing that we've seen …,” he said. “There isn't a lot of time to go after the big things that need to be addressed and that I'm insisting be addressed. … This is much needed reform, but it's not enough. And there is much more comprehensive ethics legislation that needs to be introduced and passed and will be.”


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