CHICAGO — Seizing on a federal public corruption probe that has embroiled Democrats from Chicago City Hall to the state Capitol, Illinois House Republicans on Thursday proposed a series of changes to state ethics rules they say would provide greater transparency and help prevent future abuses of power.
With superminorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and only three days remaining in the fall veto session, GOP lawmakers are unlikely to be able to advance their proposals before the legislature adjourns for the year. But they are attempting to drive the conversation on reforming state government as the majority Democrats deliberate over how to proceed.
CHICAGO — State lawmakers have worked over the past decade to bring various forms of gambling out of the shadows and onto the tax rolls, from …
The proposals from House Republicans include requiring lawmakers to provide more detailed information about their financial interests on annual statements of economic interest; instituting special elections to fill vacant seats in the House and Senate; loosening the control House committee chairs have over the fate of bills; and barring lawmakers and close family members from working as lobbyists at the local level.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs called the measures “common-sense, straightforward government ethics reforms that are long overdue.”
“If the Democrats are serious about at least trying to restore some confidence in the public, we shouldn’t have to wait till next January, next spring," Durkin said.
The measures all are tied to developments in the ongoing corruption probe that has shaken Springfield in recent months, though they also reflect frustrations Republicans have long expressed as they’ve seen their ideas stifled by Democratic leaders.
“We picked a handful of items that are relevant to the investigations that are happening today, that are things that members of both parties have talked about being reasonable solutions,” Deputy House GOP leader Tom Demmer of Dixon said.
The proposals are “low-hanging fruit” that lawmakers can act on now “to show the people across this entire state that we’re taking this seriously," Demmer said.
In August, Democratic Sen. Thomas Cullerton of Villa Park was indicted in an alleged union ghost payrolling scheme. In September, FBI and IRS agents raided the Capitol office of Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval, looking for evidence of a host of federal crimes, though Sandoval has not been charged. And late last month, federal authorities charged then-Rep. Luis Arroyo, like Sandoval a Chicago Democrat, with bribery for allegedly paying off a state senator to support legislation that would benefit one of Arroyo’s City Hall lobbying clients.
At the same time, authorities are investigating the lobbying practices of ComEd and Exelon and have raided the homes of close associates of House Speaker Michael Madigan, sources have told the Tribune. A source said agents sought information related to Madigan in a May raid on the Michigan Avenue office of the City Club of Chicago.
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At least three of the Republican proposals have direct connections to the case against Arroyo, who resigned his House seat Friday, a week after his arrest.
The longtime lawmaker is charged with bribing a state senator, who was cooperating with federal authorities, to support legislation that would regulate sweepstakes gambling machines. Arroyo was receiving $2,500 a month to lobby Chicago officials on behalf of a company in that industry, records show.
State lawmakers currently are barred from working as paid state lobbyists, and one GOP proposal would extend that prohibition to include lobbying cities and counties.
Republicans also want to do away with the current system of filling vacant House and Senate seats. As it stands, local party leaders get to choose a replacement when a member of their party vacates a seat midterm.
In the case of Arroyo, who resigned his House seat but remains the Democratic committeeman for the 36th Ward, that means he can play a major role in choosing his successor. Cook County Democratic leaders have asked Arroyo to step down from his party position.
Under the House GOP plan, vacancies would be filled through special elections governed by the same rules as party primaries.
They also want to require public disclosure of any communication between members of the legislature and state agencies regarding contracts.
The House Republican proposals follow a plan Senate Republicans put forth last week that would give more independence the legislative inspector general, who is charged with investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the General Assembly. Currently, the inspector general must get approval from a bipartisan panel of eight lawmakers before opening investigations or issuing subpoenas.
While the limited time left on the calendar could make passing the bills next week challenging, Durkin said lawmakers have shown the ability to move quickly when there’s a shared sense of urgency.
At the end of the spring legislative session in late May and early June, he said, lawmakers approved “a $45 billion capital bill and negotiated a balanced budget in 36 hours because there was a will between the parties to get something important done.”
“So there is a precedent that if the Democrat majority feels that this is an important issue, they’ll get it done,” Durkin said. “But the burden’s on them.”
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he wants lawmakers to undertake a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s ethics laws in the spring, but in the meantime, he wants them to approve enhanced disclosure requirements for those who lobby state officials when they return to Springfield next week.
“I’m going to try very hard to push through some beginning to the ethics reforms that I think we need, but like I said, it’s only a beginning,” Pritzker said Wednesday at an unrelated event in Plainfield.
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