Monday, September 22, 2008

Pay-to-play ban becomes law

Monday did become Ethics Day. After three years of back-and-forth, the Illinois House and Senate finally agreed and enacted landmark ethics reforms that will become effective January 1. The governor and some legislators already are trying to expand the so-called pay-to-play ban, but that could take just as long as the first effort. In the meantime, Monday’s action is likely to generate a lot of campaign mail as incumbents and candidates enter the home stretch before the November 4 elections.

Meanwhile, as I write this, budget negotiators from both chambers and both political parties are meeting behind closed doors to hash out a plan that would prevent state parks and historic sites from closing this fall, as well as prevent hundreds of state employees from losing their jobs. Whether they will strike a compromise, however, won’t be known until Tuesday, when both chambers will reconvene in another off-season legislative session.

All day Monday, which included multiple special sessions called by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, served as a perfect example of how everything will change in January. In addition to new ethics laws that will affect the governor’s fundraising abilities, January marks the end of Senate President Emil Jones’ reign. Throughout the day, there was an acute awareness that Jones is on his way out of office with numerous individuals interested in taking his place. More on that later.

One set of ethics reform down, more to go
The Illinois Senate agreed with the House to override Blagojevich’s changes to HB 824, meaning new campaign contribution rules will take effect in the new year. Businesses holding state contracts worth more than $50,000 will not be able to donate to the political campaigns of the officeholder who signs the contract.

The Senate president said the new law contained in HB 824 doesn’t go far enough. “It turns hard money into soft money,” Jones said, later adding, “They’ll still be able to give the soft money through the back door.” He meant that instead of donating directly to the officeholder, state contactors will still be able to give money to statewide political parties that turn around and filter the money to the officeholder who signs the contract, anyway.

Jones supports the governor’s proposals, which would expand the so-called pay-to-play ban. The governor’s amendatory veto language was inserted into a new bill. It would:

  • Ban businesses that hold significant state contracts from donating to legislators and statewide political parties, as well as statewide officeholders;
  • Prohibit legislators from working second jobs in any unit of government, with some exceptions;
  • Clarify the process by which legislators vote to accept their pay raises.
The Senate sponsor, Chicago Democratic Sen. James DeLeo, said SB 780 would level the playing field and help legislators avoid the perception that money buys influence.

Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and a main force behind HB 824, said it felt odd, but she had to oppose the new measure during a Senate committee Monday evening. She said the more expansive ethics legislation is “not ready for prime time, yet.”

She said she supports the concept but believes the governor’s proposal isn’t the right vehicle for enacting contribution limits on legislators. Banning state contractors from donating to elected officials who have no control over state contracts could invite a legal challenge based on the First Amendment that protects free speech, she said. She also questioned the fallout of prohibiting active state legislators from also working in some public sector jobs but not others. And she said the one aspect that would be ready to go if it were proposed as a stand-alone measure is the portion that would clarify the system of approving legislative pay raises.

Sen. James Clayborne, a Belleville Democrat, agreed with Canary and said the governor’s proposals need some more work, but he voted to advance the measure to the full chamber in hopes of working through more changes before a final vote.

Restoring budget cuts
Meanwhile, budgeteers are working behind closed doors in an effort to compromise to restore some of the governor’s $1.4 billion in budget cuts, which are resulting in plans to close 11 state parks and 13 historic sites, lay off hundreds of public employees and drastically reduce state funding for such human services as substance abuse treatment and prevention.

Earlier this month, the House approved two measures that would sweep about $221 million from special funds to plug some but not all of the budget holes. (See the spending portion in SB 1103.)

Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and budget negotiator, said the Senate Democrats found $42 million of that $221 million that they would like to spend in a different way than approved by the House. That includes $37 million the House included to reimburse mass transit districts for the free rides granted to seniors and people with disabilities enacted earlier this year. The Senate Democrats would take that out and shift the funding, for instance, to increase the amount of money for college grants through the Monetary Award Program. The House also would restore funding for constitutional officers at 100 percent of the original funding level, while the Senate Democrats would restore them at 75 percent.

Republicans are involved in the budget negotiations. According to Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, the GOP Caucus prioritizes restoring funding for state parks, historic sites and human services. But members argue that it doesn’t make sense to restore funding to the parks and historic sites and then sweep money from the special fund dedicated to the Department of Natural Resources.

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