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October 2009
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Michael Madigan’s Ethics Reform Bill– Reform or Power Grab?

Mike MadiganEarlier this year, after the ascent of an Illinois senator to the Presidency and the descent of another Illinois governor into infamy, our lawmakers came together and promised to make it better. United behind a theme of cleaning up Illinois, our politicians promised us that they would pass legislation that would reform the “pay to play” politics that our former governor is accused of using to retain his control on Illinois politics.

Did they fail to keep their promise? Did they lie to us again? Do they think– probably correctly– that Illinois voters will not hold them accountable?

Back in the spring, our elected representatives passed what they called “finance reform.” In an April 2009 Town Hall Meeting put on by 7th District state senator Heather Steans, discussed ethics reform and the measures before the General Assembly at the time. The speakers that night included Scott Turow, then first chair of the Illinois Executive Reform Commission. Mr. Turow and Senator Steans had a very low opinion of the work done by our legislators crafting ethics reform. The intention was to enact strong campaign cash limits after allegations that our former governor had sale prices on everything in the state under his control for campaign cash. On that April night, Turow, Steans, and other speakers that evening questioned the reform measures, calling it watered down and weak and hoped that there would be a viable alternative.

There wasn’t. That watered down reform bill passed. Fortunately for us, substitute Governor Quinn, instead of signing what he had previously called “landmark” legislation, showed backbone and vetoed the measure, telling the legislators that they could do better.

Legislators– rather Michael Madigan, the speaker of the Illinois House and he most powerful person in Illinois politics– have recently crafted another alternative. The current alternative is much like the formerly “landmark” legislation. The current alternative limits donations to candidates to $5,000.00 each for primary and general elections from individuals and $10,000.00 from corporations and unions and $50,000.00 from political action committees.

There are a couple problems. The first problem takes advantage of the fact senators run for reelection once every four years, although state representatives run once every two years. On the off year when a senator is not running (when representatives are), senators are allowed to raise money for his or her next political campaign. Critics frown upon this as giving advantage to incumbents as challengers do not begin raising campaign money until the year of the election.

The second and larger problem is the proposal that allows for House and Senate leaders– currently Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, Senate Republican leader Christine Rodogno of Lemont and House GOP leader Tom Cross of Oswego to transfer unlimited money from their special leadership accounts into the accounts of individual legislators or candidates in highly competitive races.

“Vote for Pay” to combat “Pay to Play”? This makes no sense. Under the current proposal, Michael Madigan has the power to withhold monies from a democratic candidate for a House seat because that representative might have failed to back Speaker Madigan on particular issues. Under the current metric proposed by Speaker Madigan, to get at campaign money the leader controls, the representative would be beholden to the Speaker’s interests rather than those of his constituents as Speaker Madigan would be able to choose who gets campaign cash. Perhaps campaign bonus payments for good voting records? Or the Speaker (and other leaders listed above) could give campaign cash to a member on his “preferred” list of members who votes as the Speaker wishes.

Under the system Speaker Madigan proposes, representatives lose the freedom they have to vote their conscience or the conscience of their constituents, rather having to vote along party lines– or be subject to their party leader’s ire come time for campaign cash.

Further, these distributions are limitless. According to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform these four political leaders have had campaign warchests of $25 million for each of the last three election cycles. So my legislator can get more money from Michael Madigan than from me. Under this calculus, who has greater influence over my legislator, me or Michael Madigan?

Fortunately, it looks like the measure will fail in the fall veto session. It does not look like there is much support for the measure, as most legislators see it for what it is– a power grab by the leaders of the four caucuses. We should be on edge because the General Assembly could vote for the measure, reasoning that some reform is better than none at all.

Either way, Illinoisans will not get true reform, thanks in part to Michael Madigan, which is something to remember come February 2, 2010, and again in November 2010. I personally am tired of having Michael Madigan, a man that I did not vote for, pick and choose what is in my best interest by bringing matters he deems important to vote and tabling the rest. One way to make certain that he does not have that power in roughly 54 weeks is by voting more Republicans to House seats. That way, we can allow Tom Cross a shot at setting the legislative agenda. Certainly he and his fellow Republicans can’t do any worse than Democrats in the post-Blagojevich era.

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