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Ready For Reform: Chapter 1

By The Illinois Reform Commission

Editor's Note: Next week we'll post a five-part series excerpting the final report from the Illinois Reform Commission. We don't necessarily endorse all parts of the report, but offer it up as a starting point to generate support for bringing real structural change to Illinois's sordid political culture. Today we start with the Executive Summary. The rest begins on Monday.


I. Introduction
In January, 2009, while late-night comics were heaping national scorn on Illinois in the wake of the arrest of then-Governor Blagojevich, then-Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn established the Illinois Reform Commission. Our mandate was as straightforward as it was daunting: recommend meaningful ethics reform for the State of Illinois in 100 days.

We recruited accomplished and independent men and women from a diverse variety of backgrounds to form a citizens' commission. We enthusiastically answered this call to serve, some of us with extensive prior involvement in government, others with virtually none.

Although we were mostly strangers before this Commission brought us together, we shared an overarching desire to contribute to solving this unprecedented integrity crisis.

We undertook our task as a team with one singular purpose: to devote energy, insight and passion to seize the moment on behalf of the people of Illinois.

As we complete our 100-day journey, we are proposing meaningful reforms - virtually all of which other governmental institutions have implemented - to bring about an end to some of the insidious corruption that has pervaded this State for far too long.

Along with these legal and operational reforms, we are issuing a clarion call for a change of attitude in how we view our democracy.

Our work over the last one hundred days has been exhausting and troubling, yet also exhilarating.

We embraced a torrid pace - traveling the state from Rockford and Chicago in the north to Carbondale in the south, from Peoria and Champaign in the heartland, to the Quad Cities in the west and Kankakee in the east.

We held substantive meetings on complex subjects and digested mountains of data. We listened to testimony from experts in their respective fields and heard from thousands of others through our town halls, hearings and website. We discussed, debated, and even argued at times, but we were unanimous in our desire for reform in six core areas. In fact, virtually all of the recommendations contained in this Report enjoyed the full Commission's support.

We have been troubled by learning that, in core areas governing ethics, Illinois' laws and operations simply do not measure up. For example, 46 other states have stronger campaign finance regulations in place than Illinois, and 46 states give their law enforcement agents stronger tools to root out corruption and crime. In addition, no other state resorts to picking a name out of a hat (honest Abe's, no less) to gerrymander legislative and congressional districts.

In the wake of recent scandals less severe than our own, a number of states - Connecticut, New Mexico, Massachusetts and even Louisiana - have taken aggressive action to reform their laws and political culture. What will Illinois' response to this current crisis of integrity be? Our nation is watching.


Despite our concerns about the future, the past one hundred days has been exhilarating. Thoughtful people from across this state have energized us. The vast majority of Illinois voters believe that Illinois must implement ethics reform promptly and comprehensively, and it must be done now. They also recognize the need to do more than reform the laws - we must also reform our attitudes about government and ultimately ourselves.

To comprehensively address reform, we studied six broad categories of issues: transparency, campaign finance, procurement, government structure, enforcement, and inspiring better government. From the start, the Commission determined that a holistic approach was necessary to achieve real reform. As such, we cannot endorse efforts to selectively implement some reforms while ignoring other key proposals. Half-measures will not suffice to repair our state's troubled infrastructure or our citizens' broken confidence.

We therefore urge the Governor, the public, and the General Assembly to consider our reforms collectively.

II. Campaign Finance
At best, big money in politics creates the appearance of undue influence over public officials and at worst it fosters actual corruption. Illinois is one of a few remaining states without significant campaign finance regulation. The recent election cycle with never-before seen expenditures in judicial races, out-of-control spending on legislative races as well as scandals that have brought down the last two governors leave little doubt that the system is broken.

At this juncture in the State's history, establishing a well-rounded campaign finance regulatory framework has never been more important. Accordingly, we recommend:

1. Requiring year-round, real-time submission of campaign disclosure filings.

2. Requiring disclosure of campaign contribution "bundlers."

3. Requiring greater disclosure of those making independent expenditures on behalf of a campaign.

4. Imposing limits on contributions to political campaigns from all sources.

5. Banning campaign contributions from lobbyists and trusts, and extending bans on contributions from state employees, entities seeking state contracts and entities engaged in regulated industries.

6. Holding primary elections in June.

7. Enacting a pilot project for public financing of judicial elections in 2010, with an eye toward expanding the program to elections of statewide legislative officials and constitutional posts.

8. Enhancing powers of the Illinois State Board of Elections.

9. Creating more robust discovery and enforcement mechanisms.

III. Procurement
Campaign contributions are the "pay" in "pay-to-play," procurement opportunities are the "play." Manipulation of the state procurement system enables companies with the right connections to benefit from large government contracts, and eliminate genuine market competition. The result increases the costs of goods and services while delivering suboptimal quality to Illinois consumers.

Indeed, many companies report that they are hesitant to do business in Illinois because of the State's reputation for corruption.

To help cure state procurement abuse in Illinois, we recommend:

1. Moving state procurement officials into an insulated, central, independent procurement office.

2. Eliminating loopholes and exemptions in the Procurement Code.

3. Establishing an Independent Contract Monitoring Office to oversee and review the procurement process.

4. Mandating greater disclosure for contractors, lobbyists, and others.

5. Enhancing transparency in the procurement process.

IV. Enforcement
Effectively combating public corruption requires more than implementing the proper rules. It also requires meaningfully enforcing those rules. We, therefore, turned our focus to enforcement issues. We learned that the State's prosecutorial and investigative tools are too weak to effectively detect and prosecute public corruption crimes, especially when compared to other states and the federal government. As a result, the federal government must act as the primary check on public corruption in Illinois.

To strengthen enforcement mechanisms in Illinois, we recommend:

1. Amending and enhancing state laws to provide prosecutors and investigators with many of the same tools available to federal authorities.

2. Adding significant corruption offenses to the existing list of offenses that are non-probationable.

3. Granting the Illinois Attorney General the authority to independently conduct grand jury investigations of public corruption offenses.

4. Directing additional resources to the investigation of public corruption crimes, by creating an independent public corruption division within the Illinois State Police.

5. Modifying the laws applicable to Inspectors General's Offices to improve the ability of Inspectors General to independently conduct investigations.

V. Government Structure
Although pay-to-play politics and public corruption have been at the forefront of the news recently, they are not the only problems decreasing the confidence of Illinoisans in our state government. Rather, our research and public testimony revealed structural infirmities that cause the unfairness, lack of accountability and inefficiency that characterize Illinois' government.

To address structural problems that enable and produce corruption and inefficiency in state government, we recommend:

1. Substantially reforming the State's redistricting process.

2. Adopting pending legislation that would impose term limits on legislative leadership positions.

3. Amending House and Senate Rules applicable to the budget approval process.

4. Amending the House and Senate Rules to ensure that each piece of proposed legislation with a minimum number of sponsors receives an up-or-down committee vote.

VI. Transparency
Illinoisans have trouble getting public documents and knowing whether elected and public officials are fulfilling their duties. While studying the issue of transparency in government, the Commission strongly agreed that, to be effective,government must be open and responsive to its citizens' requests for information or access to public documents.

We learned that, although Illinois has laws that address these concerns, the laws are neither adequately enforced, nor broad enough in scope to create a sufficiently transparent government. This lack of transparency gives corrupt government and misguided officials the ability to conduct their business without significant scrutiny.

Reflecting the national debate over the issue, the Commission struggled with striking the appropriate balance between the public's right to know and privacy or law enforcement concerns.

As detailed below, we recommend:

1. Enforcing the existing statutes with renewed vigor by adopting a presumption in favor of full public access to information and documents.

2. Amending relevant statutes to increase transparency and accountability.

3. Using technology to make public documents readily and easily
accessible to the public through the Internet and online databases without waiting for specific requests from the public.

VII. Inspiring Better Government
Finally, recognizing that most of the reforms we considered focused primarily on interactions with elected officials, the Commission evaluated proposals designed to inspire all state government workers to increase the confidence of Illinoisans in their government. We cannot change the culture of corruption in our State without changing state employees' attitudes.

Our inquiry extended to the core phases of governmental employment, including hiring the best-qualified candidates, improving ethics training, protecting employees that report abuses, providing a code of conduct to guide ethical behavior, and remedying abuses associated with leaving government service. Through public testimony and our own research, we learned of widespread abuse involving patronage hiring, manipulation of the personnel system, and the need for improvements in ethics training, all of which harm employee morale.

To respond to the foregoing concerns, we recommend:

1. Combating patronage by reforming the personnel system to better protect non-political positions and the employees who hold them.

2. Reforming the state's hiring process.

3. Establishing a code to guide everyday decision-making and holding
state employees accountable for abiding by the code.

4. Revising the ethics training system to improve state employees' understanding of relevant ethical standards.

5. More clearly defining whistleblower protections to ensure and expand coverage for state employees.

6. Creating additional safeguards to protect against ethical violations by those exiting state employment.

VIII. Recommendations for Further Consideration
As comprehensive as we tried to be in our recommendations, our 100-day mandate left too little time to consider the many worthy ideas for ethics reform that we received but did not have the capacity to investigate thoroughly.

Nevertheless, we recommend studying several of these ideas in the near future, including reforming laws that regulate lobbying; analyzing conflicts of interest and potential abuses in the public election of judges; and increasing civic education to promote citizenship and inspire young leaders, to name just a few.


The Illinois Reform Commission is grateful to Governor Patrick Quinn for tasking a truly independent Commission to study and recommend substantive reform. We know that the Governor and legislature will not agree with each and every recommendation, but hope that the Commission's findings and recommendations will serve as a blueprint for meaningful reform to help restore public trust in our state government. Although today marks the conclusion of the Commission's 100-day mission, the quest for the General Assembly to seriously consider and adopt these reforms is very much in process. The people of the State - after all they have been through - deserve our very best and aggressive reform efforts, even when those efforts threaten some individual short-term political interests. We hope each legislator will seriously consider and then pass meaningful reforms.

We must also remember that democracy requires citizens to be persistent watchdogs of our government. In recent years, complacency in our watchfulness has emboldened those who would cheat their constituencies for personal benefit. This blueprint for reform will be meaningless unless the changes we have envisioned become reality. This goal now belongs to all of us and collectively we can obtain the government we desire.


Posted on April 30, 2009

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