Experts split on government reform efforts

The General Assembly’s unprecedented efforts at reform are receiving mixed reviews from legislators and government watchers.

Illinois’ ethics glass is half full to those who see meaningful legislation, and half empty to those who think that lawmakers aren’t going far enough. But optimists and pessimists agree on one thing – the glass finally has some water in it, courtesy of the anger and embarrassment over former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Legislators have come far in some ways and fallen short in others when it comes to ethics reform, said John Jackson, visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He said he was reserving judgment until the spring legislative session ends Sunday.

“I’d give it an incomplete so far, if I had to give it a grade,” Jackson said Friday. “They jury is still out in terms of the total package. Being a school teacher, an incomplete seems to be the grade at this point.”

State watchdog groups labeled this legislative session, which started with the impeachment and removal of Blagojevich, as do-or-die for real reform in a state known for graft long before Blagojevich’s arrest Dec. 9, 2008, on federal corruption charges. If the first-ever removal of a sitting governor in Illinois wouldn’t spark change, reformers said, nothing would.

Blagojevich is the fifth Illinois governor since 1964 to be indicted, the last being his predecessor, Republican George Ryan. Blagojevich faces 16 federal corruption counts.

“It took an indictment and an impeachment to have us more forward, and there have been significant victories, but there also is a lot more work that needs to be done,” said state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo.

Both Jackson and Franks lauded a new law streamlining and opening state procurement, and the significant strengthening of a weak and easily-abused Illinois Freedom of Information Act. As for the biggest reform on peoples’ minds after Blagojevich’s fall from power – campaign contribution limits – reformers are less enthused.

The compromise bill being mulled over as of late Friday would cap contributions to candidates at $5,000 a person each year, and $10,000 from organizations. Gov. Pat Quinn, who backed it despite criticism from his Illinois Reform Commission that it did not go far enough, called the bill “the best we can do at this time.”

Franks called the bill a start but “not a bill I’d brag about because the loopholes are huge.” But Jackson said it was a leap forward, considering that there are no caps on contributions in Illinois.

“I think, nevertheless, it’s well worth doing, and since we had nothing before, it seems to me to be fairly significant,” Jackson said.

The enthusiasm that Better Government Association acting executive director David Lundy had for the pace of reform has dampened somewhat with the campaign finance law. He has said that other reforms are almost for naught without reining in the state’s anything-goes financing.

“I’m a little concerned that the campaign finance reform is looking an awful lot like Swiss cheese, with more holes than cheese,” Lundy said.

Also disappointing to Lundy and Jackson is the fact that changing the state’s redistricting process will not be tackled this session. Illinois’ peculiar system, which requires that a name be drawn out of a hat to break an impasse between maps drawn by both parties, results in a system in which Franks said legislators chose their voters instead of the other way around.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said his Senate Redistricting Committee planned to hold four statewide hearings through the summer to figure out how to best reform the system.

A constitutional amendment to allow recall, long sought by Franks and Quinn, could go to voters next year if both houses approve it. But the new bill only allows for recall of the governor, and voter petitions only can be circulated if 30 legislators, 15 from each party, agree on the need.

Franks, Lundy and Jackson agree that the spirit of reform will last beyond Sunday, and that further reforms could come in the fall and again with the 2010 election. Jackson said the stream of state officials accused of corruption, such as Thursday’s indictment of Chicago alderman Isaac Carothers on bribery charges, would keep post-Blagojevich reform fresh in the public mind.

“Are these guys paying attention to what’s going on?” Jackson said of Carothers. “What does it take?”

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