Eye On Illinois: Can ethics reform change Legislature’s image problem?

How will we know if ethics reform works?

That question took a back seat last week to the issue of whether lawmakers can actually enact the proposal they advanced in the spring. As Capitol News Illinois summarized, Gov. JB Pritzker issued an amendatory veto trying to fix what he called a minor error in Senate Bill 539. With the General Assembly back in session to haggle over energy legislation and the new legislative maps, the Senate unanimously endorsed the change.

There was no such victory in the House, which passed the legislation, 113-5, in May. Although Democrats have a supermajority – more than 60% of the chamber – that’s only useful when they all vote, and 14 didn’t when the measure came up about 10 p.m. And enough Republicans decided the bill they backed before was no longer worth their support.

The only way this version of the bill becomes law is if the House reconvenes and revotes. The only way they’ll come back is if they need to vote on the energy bill – which they absolutely do if they want to keep Exelon from closing a nuclear plant in Byron. So it’s not an impossibility, but certainly not enough of a priority to warrant action on its own.

Several Republicans had urged Pritzker to use his powers to strengthen the legislation, so it’s clear they’ll bring those same demands to future negotiations. Even Democrats who promoted SB 539 acknowledged it wouldn’t be the end of reform attempts, but it seems that May’s “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” mantra has succumbed to legitimate questions about whether passing something incomplete was worse than doing nothing.

Which gets back to the initial question: How do we know if it works?

If the Democrats can get their act together to accept Pritzker’s change, they can head into the 2022 campaign season telling everyone they championed a bipartisan ethics reform package, now with the added bonus of trying to paint a subset of Republicans as obstructionists.

But is successful ethics reform measured only in an absence of legislative scandal? “You can tell it’s good because none of our colleagues got arrested” is a fine talking point until Republican opponents point out the loopholes that raised red flags last spring. Yet closing those loopholes – specifically giving the legislative inspector general subpoena power and autonomy to go public with founded allegations – might make it seem corruption has increased.

Illinoisans don’t have much faith in Statehouse honesty, and it’s hard to see any version of this legislation meaningfully shifting public perception. It’s still worth trying to get things right, but an insidious culture of generational political corruption has understandably hardened taxpayers’ hearts and minds.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.