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Whither Reform? PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Written by Rich Miller   
Sunday, 29 March 2009 06:00

Both Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan have said that they'd like to see Illinois politics and government cleaned up before any deficit-closing tax increases are debated.

It's doubtful, of course, that the two men are talking about the same sort of cleanup - with Madigan coming from the old school and Quinn being the reformer for several decades.

Madigan mentioned two targets for reform the other day when talking to public television: the pension systems and the state's Purchasing Act. He didn't elaborate much. A spokesperson said ideas are currently being developed, but Madigan does want some of the state's purchasing reforms from a few years ago applied to the state pension systems.

Quinn, meanwhile, has pushed binding public referenda, campaign-contribution limits, and a whole host of other ideas that are never very popular in Springfield. Good-government groups and some newspapers have made contribution caps their top priority, partly because disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich's campaign funding apparatus was so obscene.

So, where does it go from here?

Senate President John Cullerton may have pointed the way last week when he told a Downstate newspaper's editorial board that he believes campaign-contribution limits will become the law in this state. Illinois is one of just a handful of states that place no limits on contributions. Cullerton didn't elaborate about how high he'd place the cap, but Madigan has said he worries that wealthy candidates or interest groups could overwhelm opponents with a huge barrage of uncapped spending.

If caps are put in place, they will likely wind up being higher than the federal government's $2,400 per election for individuals and $5,000 per year for political action committees. A starting point may be Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno's proposal to limit contributions to $10,000 per year from all sources.

Despite what you might think, contributions of $100,000 or more are the exception, not the rule in Illinois. But $25,000 checks are more common. Blagojevich apparently set $25,000 as his ticket price for appointments to some state boards and commissions.

Cullerton and Madigan co-chair a special bicameral committee created to come up with ethics reforms. But that legislative committee has a competitor out there, a special citizens' commission formed by Governor Quinn and run by respected former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins.

As I write this, Collins is preparing to unveil his commission's proposals. It's widely expected that the Collins commission will propose far more radical ideas than the Madigan/Cullerton committee, and members will be way more wedded to their recommendations. One member of the Collins-headed commission told a Rockford audience at a recent town-hall meeting that he would feel "very disenfranchised" if the commission's recommendations were swept under the rug.

Quinn is proud of his reformer reputation, so implementing real change is one of his top priorities. But he also wants to pass a multi-billion-dollar, job-creating capital construction plan, and he absolutely must have a balanced budget by the end of this spring's legislative session. He needs cooperation from the General Assembly and its leaders to succeed, so he has to be somewhat careful how he proceeds on his reform agenda.

Collins and his commission have been operating independently from Quinn. The governor's office has been given no real idea how far and wide the commission will go. And if they go too far and push too forcefully, Quinn will be put smack dab in the middle of any potential clash between the commission and the Madigan/Cullerton committee. The governor's own commission could put him in a major political bind.

A saving grace might be the fact that Collins didn't put any members of the state's "good government" groups on his commission. While they're often ignored at the Statehouse, if the groups decide to act as a sort of referee between the "too tame" and the "not gonna happen," they could help shape the final product's outcome.

And Quinn may have given himself a somewhat graceful way out if he has to pull the plug on the reform push. The governor said last week that he would initiate a statewide petition drive to make contribution caps the law of the land if the legislature fails to act. He probably can't do that under the state's constitution, but it'll be a fun summer project for the guy.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and TheCapitolFaxBlog.com.

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