Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Senate delays ethics reform

The Illinois Senate does not plan to return to Springfield until its regularly scheduled fall session starts November 12, and there’s a debate about whether that means highly anticipated ethics reforms will die before then.

The House on Wednesday overrode Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s changes to ethics legislation that would ban any governor from accepting political donations from businesses that hold state contracts worth more than $50,000. The Senate must agree to override those changes, or else the whole thing dies.

It gets hairy because there’s a time limit involved. But there’s also an argument about whether the state Constitution requires the Senate to act within 15 days of the House action — or whether the 15-day clock starts only after the Senate convenes session and reads the House bills into record.

Cindy Davidsmeyer, spokeswoman for Senate President Emil Jones Jr., said today that the president’s staff believes the chamber has 15 days once the Senate reads the actions into record, which would not be done until after the November elections.

Article 4, Section 9 of the State Constitution reads:

(c) The house to which a bill is returned shall immediately enter the governor's objections upon its journal. If within 15 calendar days after such entry that house by a record vote of three-fifths of the members elected passes the bill [which the House did with ethics legislation and other bills Wednesday night], it shall be delivered immediately to the second house. If within 15 calendar days after such delivery the second house by a record vote of three-fifths of the members elected passes the bill, it becomes law.

The House delivered the ethics bill to the Senate today. Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said: “We have no comment. It’s up to the Senate.”

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, said this has never happened in the Senate before. By interpreting the Constitution in a “unique” way, she said, the leadership is jeopardizing the ethics reform. Ultimately, the legislation could land in court and further delay the implementation of the contribution limits. “In the meantime, the fundraising machines keep rolling."

Ann Lousin, a 1970 constitutional convention delegate, a former House parliamentarian and a current law professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, agrees with the Senate’s interpretation. Although she disclaimed that she has not been a House parliamentarian since January 1975, said she recalls, “The House is not the House unless it’s in session.” It follows, she said, that if the Senate is not in session, then it cannot receive the bills acted upon by the other chamber. She compared it to getting a letter on Sunday, which you can’t actually receive until the post office opens for business Monday.

Charlie Wheeler, longtime Statehouse reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and current director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said while the more logical argument would be that the clock doesn’t start running until the message has been read into the record, the interpretation could be argued either way.

Someone would have to sue and argue that they’re being harmed in some way by the contribution limits, and he said that most likely would have to be a business that holds a big contract with the state and wants to donate to the officeholder.

What’s clear, he said, is that in the few decades he’s followed state government, these “nitty gritty, ministerial type of questions” never came up because there always was an understood protocol and a certain degree of civility. “In my mind, it’s just another indication of the unprecedented breakdown in the kind of basic cooperation and mutual decency that you need for an organization, and in this case, the organization being the General Assembly, to function smoothly.”

Cindi Canary, director the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, has been one of the driving forces behind the contribution limits. She said she does not intend to “lie down and accept Emil Jones’ rule by fiat.” She said the bill is far from dead. Here’s the rest of her e-mail:

I have consulted with at least half a dozen attorneys today, and they are pretty evenly split on whether the clock starts now or can be delayed until the Senate returns. The only thing that they agree on is that this has never been litigated, so it is a gray area. I, for one, have no interest in seeing this become the test case.

We know that we have a nexus between large campaign contributions and state contracts, and the Senate has it in its power to enact this workable solution tomorrow. After three years of fighting this battle, I don't understand why, when the legislature knows what to do to address a problem, they continue to let politics and ego trump effective government. The bill is far from dead, but it is disheartening that another round of games playing has been proposed by President Jones.


Anonymous,  4:26 PM  

Has Emil Jones said why he won't bring the Senate back to town? With the ethics bill and the fund sweeps and the layoffs that are coming soon, why wait until November? Why not return now?

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