Who’s a lobbyist? Lawmakers grapple with the question as Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others push for ban on public officials working in that role
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Who’s a lobbyist? Lawmakers grapple with the question as Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others push for ban on public officials working in that role

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Prtizker in December

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference in Chicago on Dec. 11.

CHICAGO — With federal investigators scrutinizing the activities of lobbyists at Chicago City Hall and the state Capitol, Gov. J.B. Pritzker wants the General Assembly to pass legislation banning public officials from working as lobbyists at other levels of government.

But to do that, lawmakers will have to decide what, exactly, counts as lobbying and who would be required to register as a lobbyist. The difficulty lawmakers face in answering those questions became apparent Wednesday at the second meeting of a state ethics commission created late last year in response to the issues raised during the ongoing federal investigation.

Aside from state government, only a handful of Illinois’ nearly 7,000 units of government have any kind of disclosure requirements for those seeking to influence decision-making by public officials. Both the city of Chicago and Cook County require lobbyists to register and have active online databases making that information public.

In DuPage County, lobbyists have been required to register for decades, but the county government’s online database shows only seven registered lobbyists, the last of whom registered in 2017.

State Sen. Elgie Sims, a Chicago Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform, said the challenge for lawmakers is finding a cohesive way to define and track lobbying across units of government without “chilling the interactions between constituents and their governmental officials.”

“I believe it would be naive of us to think that’s not happening, that these discussions aren’t happening and those interactions aren’t happening outside of Chicago, outside of Cook County” Sims said.

Sims, an attorney, has been registered as a lobbyist at City Hall and has reported being paid nearly $13,000 in the past two years by consulting firm Gartner for lobbying city officials, according to city records. He’s said that work always took a back seat to representing his constituents in Springfield.

Under a Chicago ordinance approved late last year, Sims and other elected officials will no longer be allowed to lobby at City Hall and city officials will no longer be allowed to lobby other units of government.

The fact that state lawmakers could lobby on behalf of clients at City Hall was thrust into the spotlight by the arrest of state Rep. Luis Arroyo in October. The veteran Northwest Side Democrat, who subsequently resigned, was charged with allegedly bribing a state senator to support sweepstakes gambling legislation that would have benefited one of Arroyo’s lobbying clients at City Hall.

“I’m opposed to people who hold public office lobbying other levels of government,” Pritzker said last week. “That doesn’t sound right to me. There’s too much undue influence that a mayor can have on a state legislator or vice versa. And so we’ve got to look into: How do we effectuate that?”

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Good-government groups that testified at Wednesday’s hearing said the Chicago ordinance, which takes effect in April, can serve as a model for the state.

“At a minimum, Illinois should implement a ban on state legislators lobbying other localities,” said Alisa Kaplan, policy director at Reform for Illinois. “This would reduce conflicts like the one in Arroyo’s case and eliminate the possibility that state legislators will use their public position to exert inappropriate pressure on local officials for the benefit of their private clients.”

Kaplan and other advocates also pushed lawmakers to institute a “cooling-off period” for retiring lawmakers before they can become lobbyists. It’s a fairly common practice in Springfield for lawmakers to begin working as paid lobbyists shortly after leaving the legislature.

Others who testified at the hearing -- including Steve Berlin, executive director of Chicago’s Board of Ethics -- encouraged lawmakers to consider crafting legislation so that individuals would only have to register if they were paid more than a certain amount for lobbying work or devoted a certain percentage of their time to lobbying public officials.

“When you’re regulating lobbying and the influencing of government decisions, I think you really ought to be focusing on those people who are doing it for a living -- that’s my personal opinion,” Berlin said.

The ethics commission has until March 31 to deliver recommendations to the General Assembly on changes to the state’s lobbying and government ethics laws.

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