Hope Fading For Political Reform In Illinois

This was supposed to be the year for political reform in Illinois. But six months after Pat Quinn took over for ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, some political reform advocates aren't satisfied with the results.

"We're gonna start to fumigate state government from top to bottom to make sure it has no corruption," Quinn said in January. He made the statement on his first full day after replacing fellow Democrat Blagojevich, who was impeached following his arrest on corruption charges. State lawmakers in both parties joined Quinn in vowing to clean up Illinois' notoriously dirty politics.

Patrick Collins knows a thing or two about corruption in Illinois. He was the lead federal prosecutor of George Ryan, the former Republican governor now serving a six-year prison term. He has prosecuted corrupt Chicago aldermen, city, state and county workers, as well as government contractors.

Collins says every case has one thing in common. "Each major public corruption investigation I was involved in had, at its core, a campaign finance problem."

So when Collins, now in private practice, was appointed by Quinn to lead a commission to suggest reforms for Illinois' wayward politics, he and other commissioners zeroed in on the state's almost regulation-free system of campaign finance. They proposed contribution limits to mirror federal regulations and several other restrictions.

"Suffice it to say, what came out of the legislative process did not reflect our core proposals," Collins says.

And that's putting it mildly.

Strong Words, Weak Actions

The Illinois General Assembly did approve contribution limits in its campaign finance bill, but set them thousands of dollars higher than Collins' commission recommended. Plus, Collins and other reform advocates say, the limits are riddled with gaping loopholes.

For example, candidates can set up several campaign committees for themselves, which some fear could become slush funds. Also, in-kind contributions are unlimited. The list goes on and on — and none of the new regulations would take effect until 2011, after next year's elections.

Even though Quinn initially called the bill a landmark for imposing the first-ever contribution limits in Illinois, he has not yet signed it.

His spokesman says the longtime political outsider, considered a reformer himself, is aware of the criticism surrounding the bill.

"The way that it's set up is going to invite challenge," says David Morrison with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "It's going to be tied up in court. Since it doesn't take effect for so long, it's going to take that much longer to get through the courts. In that sense, it's a huge step backward."

Many other Illinois reform proposals were put off, including stronger corruption investigative and enforcement provisions, term limits for powerful legislative leaders and the creation of a less political redistricting system.

An Opportunity Lost?

In a state that continues to be the butt of the nation's jokes, Collins says, this was a rare chance for real reform in Illinois. "You know, the world was watching, and to have answered the bell in a relatively meek way is a huge missed opportunity."

Collins says the Illinois legislature did pass a few good reforms, such as a stronger Freedom of Information Act and improved procurement laws to reduce the chances of contracting abuses.

Lawmakers cleaned up the state pension and hospital construction boards that Blagojevich appointees were convicted of using in extortion and kickback schemes.

Some observers say that's a good start for Illinois.

"A loophole is better than nothing," says Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago. "It's a step. And the next time, you take another step and another step."

Green says bringing law and order to the wild west of Illinois politics has to be done gradually.

"Illinois government now, with Blagojevich gone, is cleaner than it's been in decades," he says.

Some reform advocates hope Quinn makes changes to the campaign finance bill and sends it back to the legislature. Some hope he vetoes it outright. Otherwise, they fear there won't be another chance for significant reform — until the next big scandal.

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