Category Archives: Legislative Update

BGA Backs New State Disclosure Effort

Improved anti-corruption filing will help keep lawmakers in check

Emily_Miller_BGA_Bio copy

By Emily Miller  
Emily is the BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org. Follow her on Twitter @EJMill.

Having information about potential conflicts of interest held by public officials is vital to ensuring our government is accountable to taxpayers—not to private or personal interests.

But in Illinois, good government groups commonly refer to the current economic disclosure form lawmakers and other government officials are required to file as ”a waste of paper.”

Even though the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act has required elected officials and high-ranking government employees to file economic disclosure forms for over 40 years, the form is so vague and ineffective that 85% of those returning the form in Cook County filled in every question with the phrase “Not Applicable.”

That’s why the Better Government Association is backing a bill that will require Illinois lawmakers and other high-ranking state and county officials to file a revamped economic disclosure form designed to ferret out conflicts of interest.

SB3941, introduced by Senator Dan Kotowski (D-33) with support from Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, requires officials to report potential conflicts of interest by asking specific questions about assets, gifts, and debts. In addition, for the first time, officials will have to report outside sources of income and lobbyists who are family members or with whom they have close economic ties.

The legislation also lays the groundwork for the state to move toward an online filing system that will further improve transparency of potential conflicts of interest held by government officials.

Specifically, the legislation will require officials to report:

  • Assets valued at more than $10,000
  • Additional sources of income in excess of $2,500
  • Debts over $5,000 incurred by or owed to the filer, other than those owed to a financial institution.
  • Lobbyists with whom the filer has an economic relationship
  • Family members of the filer, including a spouse, child, step-child, parent, step-parent or sibling, who are lobbyists registered with any unit of government in Illinois
  • Gifts with a value of $500 or more

The BGA will be working hard alongside reform-minded lawmakers to pass SB3941 in January.

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State Senate Passes Bill To End Legislative Scholarships

BGA Legislative ScholarshsipA bill to eliminate the controversial legislative scholarship program passed the Illinois Senate and is very close to becoming law.

The Better Government Association’s policy unit has been advocating a complete dismantling of the scholarship program and had strongly recommended President John Cullerton call for a full Senate vote on a bill that will scuttle the troubled and clout-riddled legislative perk.

Forty-three Senators voted to end the program while five voted no and five members voted present.

The Senate sends the measure back to the House, which earlier had approved eliminating the program, to address some changes attached to the Senate bill.

House Speaker Michael J. Madigan has agreed to those changes, so it’s expected the bill will be approved and sent to Gov. Pat Quinn to be signed into law.

This year, Quinn has repeatedly stated that he favors total elimination of the scholarship program, which has been in place for nearly a century, and allows every member of the Illinois General Assembly to give two tuition-free scholarships a year to major state universities to constituents in their district. In total, those scholarships cost taxpayers about $13 million a year.

The BGA and media outlets throughout the state have reported for years that this program is being misused and abused for political, not educational, purposes.

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Scholarship Scam Might Finally be Killed

Commentary

This Op-Ed also appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

BGA’s policy arm is calling for an end to legislative scholarships because we believe they’re beyond repair or reform.

In recent months, the Better Government Association and various media outlets have chronicled the misuse and abuse of Illinois’ long-standing legislative scholarship program, a perk that allows lawmakers to give two college students tuition-free access to a state university each year.

Based on these investigations, the BGA’s policy arm is calling for an end to the scholarships because we believe they’re beyond repair or reform.

Meanwhile, the government watchdog that should be policing the program on behalf of the taxpayers claims he can’t do much because his hands are tied — a claim the BGA finds hard to believe.

On Wednesday, a bill to abolish the scholarship program passed with an overwhelming majority in the House. We urge the Senate to take quick action next, sending the bill to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk to be signed into law.

There is only one rule for handing out these scholarships: the recipients must live in the lawmaker’s district. But history shows that legislators repeatedly violate this obligation without fear of any legal consequences or sanctions from the General Assembly.

The most recent examples: The BGA reported that state Rep. Monique Davis gave scholarships to 10 recipients who live outside her district, and a Chicago Sun-Times report indicates that state Sen. Annazette Collins did the same thing for 10 geographically challenged students.

When it’s alleged that lawmakers fail to observe the law, it stands to reason that some sort of formal investigation should seek to determine guilt or innocence, and have the power to impose a sanction or consequence.

But for years, nothing has been done.

In fact, Thomas J. Homer, the Illinois Legislative Inspector General — the entity with the jurisdiction to investigate any alleged wrongdoing by members of the General Assembly — confirms that his office did not conduct a single investigation related to legislative scholarships until last fall.

Homer points to several factors that crimp his ability to investigate lawmakers, including a statute of limitations that prevents him from looking into allegations of wrongdoing that occurred more than a year before the complaint is filed, unless there’s a cover-up involved. And before 2010, Homer’s office was prohibited from initiating its own investigations and had to rely on complaints from third parties.

Efforts of the Legislative Inspector General to pursue violations of the law have proven to be woefully inadequate — or nonexistent — despite the firestorm of controversy surrounding it. Since 2010, there have been at least seven reports of legislative scholarship abuse, and not a single investigation with a suggested remedial action has come out of the Office of the Legislative Inspector General.

In principle, those who misused the program and ignored the law should be disciplined. Moreover, if this program had been more closely guarded, it arguably could have been a success instead of a glaring example of abuse of power.

But it’s too late for that type of thinking.

Gov. Quinn, who supports eliminating the scholarship program, recently called on the “Legislature and its leadership to move forward” and “put a bill on [his] desk.”

He even coined a phrase: “Don’t mend it. End it.”

It’s time to put that sentiment into action and scuttle this program.

Emily Miller is the BGA’s policy and government relations coordinator. She can be reached at (312) 821-9034 or at emiller@bettergov.org.

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BGA Statement on the Illinois House Passage of a Bill to End Legislative Scholarships

By Emily Miller
Emily is the BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org. Follow her on Twitter @EJMill.


The Illinois House today passed HB3810, which calls for the elimination of the decades-old legislative scholarship program. The BGA has been at the forefront of a movement to end a program, that’s been the topic of BGA investigations and other media reports documenting how lawmakers have used the scholarships to pay back cronies, political backers and supporters.

“This is an important first step in ending this long-abused and misused program,” said Andy Shaw, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Better Government Association. “Now it is up to the Illinois Senate, and Senate President John Cullerton, to have a floor vote, which we believe will mirror the House vote and send the bill to the governor’s desk for his promised signature.

“Scholarships should not be doled out by legislators, nor should they be used as a way to pay back cronies, political supporters or friends. Scholarships should be granted by state universities that have the expertise to accomplish this important task, not politicians.”

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Legislative Scholarships Abused, Must Be Ended

>> TAKE ACTION: Click here to sign the BGA’s petition urging Illinois lawmakers to eliminate legislative scholarships.

By Emily Miller  
This Think Tank post was also published as an OpEd on Sunday, January 22, 2012 in the Chicago Sun-Times. Emily is the BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org. Follow her on Twitter @EJMill.

It’s one of the great perks of membership in the Illinois General Assembly: Doling out annual legislative scholarships that provide students in their districts a free education at a state-sponsored university.

In theory, scholarships are for deserving young people who have the brains but not the bucks to pay for tuition at the University of Illinois or any of the 10 state-backed institutions of higher learning. In reality, hundreds of thousands of dollars are ladled out every year, with little or no oversight, to children of lawmakers’ buddies, political allies, campaign workers or contributors.

This commentary was also published in the Chicago Sun-Times

Recent investigations by the Better Government Association and media outlets have disclosed that state legislators routinely abuse this award program by using it as a type of currency to pay back supporters or cronies. It’s such an embarrassing mess that a third of the General Assembly now refuses to participate in the program, according to a recent newspaper report.

It’s time to face the facts: The legislative award program, which allows every lawmaker to grant two scholarships a year, is beyond reform and should be eliminated.

The General Assembly can fix the problem this year by passing a bill that would eliminate the legislative scholarship program. There is already a proposal, filed last December in the House of Representatives, that’s attracting bipartisan support and has 37 co-sponsors. That bill would end the legislative scholarship program . Some of the state’s heavy hitters say they want legislative scholarships to go away. Gov. Pat Quinn and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) made eliminating legislative scholarships a top priority during the most recent veto session.

Unfortunately, the General Assembly as a whole has been more talk than action when it comes to getting rid of this legislative largess, which now costs taxpayers about $15 million per year.

Over the years, bills designed to eliminate the program have failed, usually because of political maneuvering by the Senate. In 2010, a bill passed in the House only to die in the Senate. In 1999, when the House passed a bill to prevent members from awarding scholarships, the Senate added and passed an amendment exempting itself, which killed the bill’s chances to move to the governor’s desk.

And the Senate’s Democratic leadership still isn’t on board, preventing a Republican-supported measure to end the program from coming up for a vote in 2011.

On the other side of the aisle, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago) has voted to get rid of legislative scholarships, but he hasn’t publicly gone to bat for the issue or made it a priority.

We acknowledge that some awards do go to deserving stu­dents, and some lawmakers handle the scholarship program ethically by awarding grants strictly on merit or letting an outside panel vet the candidates for academic and financial worthiness. But that’s hard to legislate, so let’s put scholarship decisions where they belong — in the hands of the educators at the universities.

The BGA recommends lawmakers dump the legislative scholarship program because it’s rotting from within, lacks accountability and is not based on merit but clout.

Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, the co-czars of the General Assembly, should work with the Republicans to quickly pass a bill ending the program as soon as the new legislative session gets under way. And Quinn should sign the measure.

When lawmakers award taxpayer-funded scholarships to the children of friends, political allies, campaign contributors or lobbyists they’re using public money to curry private favor.

In the BGA’s view, that’s the essence of political corruption and it has to stop.

>> TAKE ACTION: Click here to sign the BGA’s petition urging Illinois lawmakers to eliminate legislative scholarships.

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Gov.’s Gaming Blueprint Deserves a Fair Deal

By Emily Miller
Emily is the BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org.

As he was threatening to veto a bill authorizing a massive expansion of gambling in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn was also releasing a “framework for gaming”—his blueprint for fixing what, from his perspective, ails the General Assembly’s latest legislative attempt to swell the ranks of casinos, slot machines and gambling venues.

(conorwithonen/CC)

When the BGA recently examined the mammoth gaming bill, SB 744, it found a dismal lack of solid research and analysis behind the bill’s contention that more gaming will result in a jobs and revenue bonanza for Illinois. So the BGA called on Quinn not to consider backing the bill without an exhaustive, in-depth examination of the legislation’s details, including: economic risks and rewards; social costs; the impact of Chicago owning its own casino; and the ability of regulators to prevent an infusion of gaming-related criminal activity.

Overall, the Governor’s office did what the BGA suggested after the gaming bill was passed with no public hearings during the waning days of the last General Assembly session. Over the summer, Quinn’s staff spoke with scores of public interest groups, including the BGA, community leaders, anti-gaming forces and pro-gambling interests. After completing the due diligence, Quinn threatened his veto, explaining there are faulty assumptions in the current bill, and other elements he can’t support.

The issues include:

  • Revenue windfall. The Governor’s office determined the gaming expansion was not targeted in the best possible way to pull gamblers away from neighboring states while minimizing the potentially negative impact of new gambling venues on current casino towns. In other words, he didn’t buy the pro-gaming hype.
  • Limiting gaming growth. Quinn has proposed a smaller and more targeted gaming expansion. He favors cutting the number of new casinos to five from the 14 authorized by SB 744. He wants to eliminate slot machines at both major airports in Chicago and all 7 “racinos,” including the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
  • Regulatory, contracting woes. Quinn’s analysis also highlighted a number of regulatory shortcomings in SB 744, including the fact that the Illinois Gaming Board lacks the time, authority and resources to thwart corruption
  • Banning campaign cash. To curb potential conflicts of interest and improper influence, Quinn’s office has also proposed banning contributions to lawmakers from gaming licensees and casino managers, a policy that’s already in effect in Iowa, Michigan, and Indiana.

The work of the governor’s office demonstrates a lot of time, effort and research went into the analysis, and that’s something the BGA hasn’t seen from any of the other governmental entities involved in legislation with such sweeping implications for Illinois.

This week during the fall veto session, Senate President John Cullerton said the gaming expansion bill was on hold and that he would soon be hammering out details of a new gaming bill with the governor. Lawmakers have the chance to give Quinn’s framework the same thoughtful consideration he gave to the original gaming proposal.

Let’s hope political maneuverings and ambitions don’t get in the way of a real public dialogue about the impact gaming expansion will have on Illinois.

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Gaming, ‘Smart Grid’ Bills Top Illinois Veto Session Agenda

By Emily Miller
Emily is the BGA’s Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator. Contact her at emiller@bettergov.org.

The Illinois General Assembly reconvenes every fall for a two-week “veto session.”

Technically, state lawmakers are supposed to consider bills the Governor has rejected, but it’s not unusual for other initiatives to surface and be voted upon during this legislative get-together.

So what will lawmakers be focusing on? Here’s what’s likely to be considered:

(conorwithonen/CC)

Gaming expansion
One high-profile issue legislators will address is statewide gambling expansion, a measure the General Assembly approved in the closing days of the last regular session.

Although Governor Quinn never received the actual bill, he signaled he would veto it should it arrive on his desk. As an alternative to that proposed veto, Quinn recently suggested ways the gambling expansion bill could be amended to maximize revenue and increase regulation in what he dubbed a “Framework for Gaming in Illinois.”

The BGA pressed the governor not to approve any gambling expansion bill without more public discussion and community input. The BGA is also concerned the state does not fully understand the economic impact of gaming expansion and is relying on outdated or faulty revenue projections.

A spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, who held back the original gaming bill from Quinn, told the BGA that passing a compromise bill that works for both the gaming industry and the Governor is among Cullerton’s top veto session priorities.

President Cullerton intends to prove Quinn’s “framework” is not a workable proposal by giving lawmakers the chance to vote on a bill that closely mirrors Quinn’s proposal. Cullerton’s hope is that the failure of the bill will bring Quinn to the negotiating table.

However, the Governor has repeatedly said he is not interested in hammering out such a compromise—and strongly believes his “framework” is the smartest and best plan for Illinois, and anything less is unacceptable.

Insiders doubt a compromise bill can pass, especially one that does not include so-called “racinos,” or casinos at racetracks—a piece of the original legislation the Governor opposes.

Removing pieces of a bill that was carefully calibrated to satisfy all the specialized interests found in the gaming industry would almost certainly lead to the bill’s demise.

Will the "smart grid" bill make it out of Springfield?

ComEd and Ameren’s “smart grid”
The wheels have already started turning to override Governor Quinn’s high-profile veto of the so-called ComEd “smart grid” bill.

Under the legislation, ComEd and Ameren avoid independent regulation and lock in rate hikes over the next decade to pay for a system upgrade that, they say, will make Illinois energy delivery more reliable and competitive.

Unlikely proponents include environmental groups, who signed on in support of the measure in exchange for the inclusion of renewable energy and improved efficiency standards. The bill’s opponents, including the AARP, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Simon, argue the legislation allows ComEd and Ameren to bypass state regulation, leaving consumers vulnerable.

A so-called “trailer bill,” touted by proponents as a fix to many of the Governor’s concerns regarding consumer protection, was pushed by the industry and passed out of the Senate on Tuesday.

Expect ComEd and Ameren to keep pushing to get both the trailer bill and the veto override through the Senate this week, so they can focus on getting the measure through the House during the second week of veto session.

A BGA investigation found that in the months leading up to the Illinois General Assembly’s approval of the controversial energy bill, utility giants ComEd and Ameren, and their executives and affiliates, donated more than $1.3 million to campaign funds benefiting state lawmakers.

Chicago Board of Trade Building (puroticorico/CC)

Tax incentives for Illinois futures industry
A spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton said Monday that lowering the state’s corporate income tax rate for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) and the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) to keep their business in Illinois is a top priority for the veto session.

A spokeswoman for Republican Senate Leader Christine Radogno characterized the measure as part of a larger jobs initiative—one that includes other incentives to keep companies like Sears in Illinois. She does, however, have reservations about speeding the measure through the General Assembly before its full impact is known.

But Crain’s Chicago Business political columnist Greg Hinz reports that the deal that gives the exchanges a 50 percent reduction in their tax rate would reduce state revenue by $100 million a year. As Crain’s points out, the CME, one of the slated recipients of this corporate tax break, saw more than $900 million in profits last year alone.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie questioned whether the bill was even necessary, according to Crain’s.

But Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel strongly supports the incentive. If Senate President Cullerton can sweeten the deal enough for Senate Republicans to support the measure, Mayor Emanuel may be able to use his influence with Chicago-area lawmakers to push the measure out of the House.

Abolishing Legislative Scholarships
Though the legislative scholarships program—which allows lawmakers to hand out scholarships for state schools to anyone in their district—has been under a microscope in recent months following reports of misuse by some lawmakers, it is unlikely this program will be abolished during veto session.

Governor Quinn attempted to abolish the program by adding language to a bill he vetoed—a move House Speaker Madigan deemed an unconstitutional overreach of the executive office. Attempts by Senate Republican Leader Radogno to pass a bill abolishing the program have been quashed by Senate President Cullerton.

The Governor’s staff says the issue is a top priority for him this veto session. But if neither Speaker Madigan nor President Cullerton is interested in moving the bill, it will go nowhere.

In August, a BGA/Chicago Sun-Times investigation revealed how State Rep. Dan Burke’s ex-secretary’s daughter received a legislative scholarship, despite questions regarding her residency in his district. The FBI is looking into the grant.

Facility Closures
This summer, Governor Quinn announced that a state budget shortfall of $376 million lead to his decision to close mental health and prison facilities around the state.

He has blamed the cuts on lawmakers who failed to give him a budget sufficient to pay for a whole year of expenses, and has encouraged lawmakers to fill in the budget gap during veto session to prevent the closures.

Since his announcement, the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has been trying to shore up enough votes for appropriations to prevent closure of the facilities.

It’s not out of the question for the General Assembly to come up with the cash to fully fund the facilities for the rest of the year, which would bring the closure proceedings to a halt.

Illinois’ Unpaid Debt and Public Pension Reform—the Elephants in the Room

Two of the biggest problems facing Illinois are its backlog of unpaid bills and the need to reform public pensions. But most don’t expect either of these issues to move this fall in Springfield.

None of the legislative leaders we spoke to cited eliminating the backlog of debt as a priority for veto session. It’s not likely that any plan will emerge in the coming weeks to address the issue.

Similarly, it’s not likely that major pension reform—one of the most pressing and divisive political issues facing lawmakers—will move at all.

While House Republican Leader Tom Cross has introduced measures that would eliminate some pension loopholes, few lawmakers expect any large-scale pension reform bill to get a vote in the veto session.

Sooner or later, Illinois legislative leaders will have to address both of these issues, but it’s not likely they will do so this fall.

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