Legislature should pass laws on campaign reform

Legislature should pass laws on campaign reform

By Cindy Canary

By Cindy Canary

Legislature should pass laws on campaign reform

Campaign reformers were jubilant just two short years ago when then Gov. Jim Edgar signed into law Illinois’ most sweeping ethics reform measure in over two decades. The new ethics law was passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and made Illinois the first state in the nation to require electronic disclosure of campaign finance reports, a simple step which greatly enhanced public accountability. The law also banned the unseemly practice of holding fundraisers in the state capitol on days the Legislature was in session. It prohibited politicians from spending campaign funds on personal items, like new cars or vacation homes. And it barred lobbyists from giving expensive gifts to public officials—a practice that looked to many like bribery.

Now that law is in limbo, and Illinois voters and politicians alike are suffering, while the Legislature and the judiciary are both grappling with the issue.

Last September, a Will County trial judge declared that a small part of the ethics law was unconstitutionally vague. The judge’s concerns focused on the law’s failure to define some terms, like “nominal” and “state property.” Such oversights are usually rectified through regulations. But in this instance, the judge looked only at the statute and found the problems incurable.

Even worse, the judge ruled that the vagaries of a few parts of the Act meant that none of the Act was enforceable. Most statutes have a severability clause—a provision directing courts to allow uncontested parts of a statute to stand even if constitutional defects are found in others—and the ethics reform law was no exception. Nonetheless, the trial judge threw out the whole law.

As a final slap at reformers, Justice James Heiple, in one of his final acts on the Illinois Supreme Court, denied a request to continue enforcement of the law while the trial court’s ruling was appealed.

Illinois is still reeling from the consequences of the courts’ actions. Illinois now has no final arbiter of ethics for state officials. There are no rules regarding fundraising by state regulators, gifts to elected officials or trips funded by lobbyists. All of these things are now perfectly legal, even if they suggest improper relations between public figures and special interests. Even more serious, parts of the law which were never challenged and which have been previously upheld in other states are now in limbo. They include:

l The ban on personal use of campaign funds. In the past, Illinois politicians have used campaign funds to arrange for nursing home care for relatives, to buy cars and vacations and to supplement their income. All of these activities make campaign contributions look dangerously like bribes.

l Electronic disclosure. Illinois’ law requiring electronic disclosure of campaign funds has become a national model. Voters, students and reporters alike can log on to the State Board of Elections website and obtain copies of campaign disclosure forms within hours of the time they are filed.

l Fundraising in the state capitol when the Legislature is in session. Even lobbyists complained about the “awkwardness” of seeing a legislator at a breakfast fundraiser held immediately before a committee meeting that was to consider important legislation.

The absence of the law hurts politicians even more than it hurts the public. With no law in place to say what is wrong and what is acceptable, officials cannot defend themselves by citing statutes that allow their actions. Without a state forum to handle ethical questions, officials cannot seek guidance before they take contributions. The only rule now seems to be, if a reporter later finds out about it is somebody might lose their job–hardly a fair and even-handed way to administer state ethics.

We remain hopeful that the Supreme Court will uphold the law. In the meantime, several measures—including the governor’s proposal to close the revolving door between government and private contractors and to bar campaign solicitations of state employees and regulated industries—are now pending in the state Legislature. Now is the time to demand laws establishing high ethical standards for public officials. Ultimately, neither a court ruling nor legislation will transform Illinois’ political culture—voter vigilance is the only true means of ensuring ethical behavior.

Cindy Canary is the director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, 325 W. Huron, Suite 304, Chicago, IL 60610.

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