Democrats who control the Illinois House used a do-over vote Thursday to approve a widely criticized government ethics plan they say is a first step toward reining in the state’s pervasive public corruption.
The House voted 74-41 to accept Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed tweak to the measure, which will become law upon his certification. A first attempt fell short last week when more than a dozen Democrats failed to vote and Republicans walked away from the proposal, which was originally approved in May with overwhelming bipartisan support.
This time around, Democrats rallied 72 members to vote yes. Republicans again largely turned their back on their bill, with only Reps. Amy Elik of Alton and Jeff Keicher of Sycamore voting in support.
In May, all but five members of the House GOP supported the plan, in part out of concerns over how votes against an ethics proposal would be portrayed in next year’s campaign.
But they pulled their backing after the General Assembly’s top watchdog, Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope, tendered her resignation in July, saying lawmakers had “demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority.”
Pope and her two predecessors have long pushed for more independence for the office.
After the bill fell short in a vote Aug. 31, Republicans pushed for Democrats to restart negotiations on what they argue would be stronger anti-corruption efforts.
Rep. Kelly Burke of Evergreen Park, the bill’s sponsor, said the House Ethics and Elections Committee would continue reviewing additional proposals next spring. Republicans in opposition questioned why those changes should be put off.
“What’s keeping us from doing more right now? Do we not know what needs to be done?” said Rep. Blaine Wilhour of Beecher City, one of five Republicans who voted against the plan in the spring. “What’s keeping us from giving the legislative inspector general the power that the last three say that they need to be the proper watchdogs over this body?”
After the vote, Democratic Rep. Fran Hurley of Chicago placed a procedural hold on the legislation, a move sometimes used to block opponents from forcing another vote.
Pritzker, who’d previously expressed support for the plan despite concerns that it didn’t go far enough, used his amendatory veto power late last month to fix a “technical drafting error” he said would inadvertently interfere with the “clear authority” of the executive inspector general’s office to investigate alleged misconduct. The Senate voted 58-0 on Aug. 31 to accept Pritzker’s change and send the measure to the House.
The measure will require additional disclosures from officials on personal financial interests, aims to prevent lawmakers from lobbying their former colleagues immediately after they leave office, and allows the legislative inspector general to initiate investigations of alleged wrongdoing without the blessing of a panel appointed by the partisan leaders of the General Assembly, among other changes.
But good-government groups, along with Pope and Republican lawmakers, say the new law doesn’t give the legislative inspector general enough independence to pursue allegations of misconduct by legislators. It also limits the office’s jurisdiction to matters related directly to a lawmaker’s public office.
Critics say it has other glaring weaknesses as well.
That includes a six-month cooling-off period before lawmakers who leave office can become lobbyists, far shorter than in many neighboring states. It also contains a gaping loophole: The prohibition only would apply to lawmakers who leave office with more than six months remaining in their term. Once the two-year term of the General Assembly to which they were elected is up, they’d be free to become a lobbyist the next day.
Another shortcoming, critics say, is the lack of a blanket prohibition on elected officials working as lobbyists at other levels of government, another issue that came to light through the federal investigation.