NEWS

State ethics advocates still hopeful

Dana Heupel

Ethics advocates still have faith that government reforms will be enacted, even though the Illinois House and Senate have no more regular sessions on their calendars.

"I certainly hope it's not over. They've still got a lot of work to do," David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said Thursday.

Both chambers of the General Assembly have reduced their schedules to perfunctory sessions, during which only routine clerical duties are performed. However, lawmakers have not officially adjourned their record 77-day overtime session.

That has kept hope alive for Morrison and others, who believe the legislature may schedule more working days and take up any of several ethics bills.

The most likely legislation at this point, Morrison said, is House Bill 824, which is being amended in the Senate to include a ban on campaign contributions by many state vendors, along with pension and procurement reforms. It is an amalgam of several ethics bills that have stalled so far at various points in the legislative process.

"We are making slow but steady progress in the negotiations," said Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, D-Evanston, the Senate sponsor of HB824. "I think the final product will be much more comprehensive and will close off many more areas of abuse."

Schoenberg said he is still talking with interested parties, such as organized labor, state employee retirement systems, financial institutions and other lawmakers, about what reforms should be included in the final bill.

"I'm confident that we're going to not only address the so-called 'pay-to-play issues,' which address potential abuses in the tens of thousands to millions of dollars," he said, "but also the far-more-lucrative potential abuses dealing with pension investments and other areas of the state finances. Those range in the tens of millions to billions of dollars, and they require serious attention, too.

"Whenever there's a lot of cheese out there, we need to build bigger and better mousetraps," Schoenberg said.

The most visible ethics bill during this legislative session has been HB1, which would forbid anyone holding or bidding on a state contract larger than $25,000 from contributing to the campaign of the officeholder who awards it.

That legislation passed the House, 116-0, in April, but has not been called for a vote in the Senate, despite being sponsored by 46 of the 59 senators. It also has received support from Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Secretary of State Jesse White and Comptroller Dan Hynes.

The major provisions of HB1 are to be inserted into HB824, Schoenberg said.

"There's still an opportunity for 'pay-to-play' legislation to pass the General Assembly, and we continue to hope that will occur," said Carol Knowles, a spokeswoman for Hynes, who has been one of the most active supporters of HB1.

Dana Heupel can be reached at (217) 788-1518 or dana.heupel@sj-r.com.