Dispatches from the war on corruption
The people have won a handful of small victories over the past week over Illinois rampant culture of corruption. It's like a three-pack-a-day smoker cutting back by one cigarette, but it's something.
Allow me to celebrate, and do a little gloating:
• NO INFLATED PENSION FOR YOU: A bill awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's signature limits the blood-boiling practice of veteran ex-lawmakers spiking their pensions by briefly working other public-sector jobs.
Under the law, any local government that hires one of these lawmakers has to pay for their pension increase instead of state taxpayers.
The bill was inspired by a Chicago Tribune investigation revealing that former Rep. Robert Molaro, D-Chicago, doubled his legislative pension by working one month for Chicago Democratic Alderman Edward Burke.
The $12,000 he pulled down for the one-month gig was multiplied by 12 months for a $144,000, doubling Molaro's pension to more than $110,000.
What did Molaro do for a month for Burke? He wrote a 19-page white paper on ... pensions!
The new bill only affects about a dozen former lawmakers. A 1994 ethics law ended the abuse of end-of-career pension boosts for General Assembly members, but only for new ones elected after the law's effective date. However, the new bill does not apply if the lawmaker's new job lasts more than two years – the logic of the Senate that amended the bill is that such a duration means the job is an honest one, and not a "sweetheart deal" as Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said.
As I wrote in a 2011 story on the state lawmaker pension system, one of the highest pensioners in the system for state lawmakers exploited a similar boost, which helped inspire the 1994 reform. Former Republican Sen. John Friedland, whose pension now exceeds $140,000 a year, boosted his $30,000 pension in the early 1990s to more than $80,000 by working for a few months with the Fox River Water Reclamation District.
• NO MORE FREE RIDES: The century-old (can you believe that?) and rapaciously corrupt and patronage-laden legislative scholarship program is the newest addition to the dust bin of history.
Under this program, each of the state's 177 lawmakers gets to hand out two state university tuition waivers a year to students in their districts, although not all of them do.
This is Illinois, of course, so the definition of a deserving student often turns out to be one whose daddy contributed to the lawmaker's campaign or did the lawmaker a favor.
And on a number of occasions, the student never even lived in the lawmaker's district. The U.S. Attorney's Office recently subpoenaed the records of Sen. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago, over the waivers she's doled out.
The bill signed Wednesday by Quinn allows one more round to be awarded for the upcoming academic year with a Sept. 1 deadline. One more shot at rewarding favors, and socking universities that the state has long owed millions to with students they have to educate for free.
And if Molaro's name from the aforementioned pension bill rings a bell, it's because investigators looked into him because he doled out four of those waivers, totaling $94,000 in free college education, to the family of a longtime political supporter.
• PUBLIC SALARY, PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE: As I wrote earlier this week, another new law adds county, municipal and township employee salaries to the searchable Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal.
Such salaries have long been public information under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. But under this law, taxpayers will be able to look up the salaries on the portal, which also has salaries of state employees.
Besides, as I wrote last month, studies show that far too many of our local taxing bodies still don't understand FOIA and are not complying with the law and our legal right to know.
As I blog here ad nauseam, your taxing bodies use your property taxes to pay lobbyists to fight transparency laws, and several of them lobbied against this one. And this time, they lost.
Savor. Then again, the lobbyists still get paid with our money to work against the public interest, so maybe the joke's on us.
• GIVE ME A (TAX) BREAK: A bill signed into law last week requires the state's main economic development agency to list all details of tax break agreements with companies.
The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity now has to publish online the details of incentive agreements doled out under its Economic Development for a Growing Economy program. Before, the DCEO would publish an annual list of what companies get the incentives, but not the terms or the amounts.
I'm thinking that we may need another bill to change the program's name, given that the tax breaks since the Quinncome tax hike of 2011 have been doled out for the most part to keep present employers from leaving.
Maybe the Belay Economic Gridlock program? Or maybe the Prevent Leaving Economic Assets Deal? After all, BEG and PLEAD are much more descriptive of the program's new priorities than EDGE.
Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.