SPRINGFIELD — Bipartisan ethics reform in Illinois?
It may be possible — someday — if Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and some Democrats can follow up.
In his first week in office, Rauner put into action executive orders aimed at improving ethics and transparency. Twice, legislators appearing with him included a Democrat.
Two of the legislators working with Rauner are Sen. Darrin LaHood, R-Dunlap, and Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highwood. The lawmakers, both former federal prosecutors, are each introducing reform packages in their chambers.
They said Rauner willingly tapped into their ideas for his executive orders and promises to support reform legislation on its merits, not based on party sponsorship.
LaHood and Drury are coming out with bills to get those ideas into state law, as the measures would then extend to all state employees and legislators. Further, laws stay on the books even as administrations change.
For example, LaHood wants to pass legislation to bar lawmakers from walking out the statehouse doors one day and returning the next as a lobbyist.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that people on both sides of the aisle can negotiate a contract while in office, leave and begin lobbying,” said LaHood, who is introducing a half-dozen bills aimed at reform.
LaHood said his previous attempts to stop bad practices would easily pass were they called before the Senate for a vote, but they’ve been blocked in committees.
Drury said he knows the feeling. His reform package for 2015 calls for:
A two-year ban on state employees engaging in lobbying after they leave government service.
Limits on how long someone can be speaker of the House or Senate president.
A ban on gifts to elected officials and state employees.
Non-partisan legislative redistricting.
A requirement that legislative committee witnesses testify under oath.
Drury, like LaHood, saluted the governor for making ethical reform a priority and said he expects that will continue.
“I’ve met with the governor on several occasions and hope to be able to continue working with him, as a Democrat, in a bipartisan manner.”
Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, appeared with Rauner at a similar event and lauded the governor’s attitude.
He called Rauner’s action to post the names of all political hires “a real example of bipartisanship necessary in this state. It actually shows the governor is doing his homework, and he’s governing.”
Very cautious optimism
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said he’s seen some encouraging signs in the early days of the 99th General Assembly and the Rauner administration.
But don’t expect change will come easy.
Illinois constitution does not give citizens easy or direct ability to make change by way of petitions and referendums.
“That’s stymied a lot of reforms that have already occurred in other states,” he said.
That means it falls to elected officials, many whom “know there’s something wrong and we need change, but it’s hard for them to do surgery on themselves.”
Yepsen credited Rauner for setting a focus on reform during his first days in office.
And, he said, it’s not surprising some Democrats are ready to work with a new, Republican governor.
“A lot of Democratic legislators did not have personal relationships with either Pat Quinn or Rod Blagojevich,” Yepsen said. “A lot of politics is based on personal relations… (and) a lot legislators just want to be heard.”
Yepsen said he thinks the governor knows it will be difficult or impossible to get some reform measures through the Legislature in this session and perhaps others, but at least Rauner has started a high-profile discussion.
“The people voted for a change, and I think there are legislators who are ready to get on with it,” Yepsen said.
“There are positive signs, but I think it’s too early to predict success or failure.”
Mark Fitton is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.