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Ethics Bill Clears House On Second Try, Will Head Back To Governor

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Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, speaks on the floor of the Illinois House Thursday before passing Senate Bill 539, an ethics reform bill. It will head back to the governor for a signature.

The Illinois House on Thursday voted to accept changes to an ethics bill that Gov. JB Pritzker had requested, paving the way for it to become law once the governor signs it.

Thursday’s vote came a little more than a week after an earlier attempt fell short in the House. That happened during a late-night session Tuesday, Aug. 31, after many Democrats had left the Capitol following a one-day special session that was called mainly to reconsider a legislative redistricting plan.

But Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, renewed her motion Thursday at the start of another one-day session that was called mainly to consider a comprehensive energy package. This time, with nearly all House members present, the measure passed, 74-41, largely along party lines. Reps. Amy Elik, R-Alton, and Jeff Keicher, R-Sycamore, were the only Republicans to vote yes.

Senate Bill 539 originally cleared both chambers during the spring session by overwhelming margins, 56-0 in the Senate and 113-5 in the House, even though Republicans at the time complained on the floor that it had been watered down. But it contained enough reforms, such as increased financial disclosure requirements and limits on the ability of elected officials to lobby other units of government, so that many lawmakers said they believed it was the best they could get at the time.

But a few weeks after it passed, on July 14, the General Assembly’s top ethics watchdog, Legislative Inspector General Carol Pope, submitted her intent to resign by Dec. 15, saying the bill would actually weaken her office by limiting the types of investigations she could conduct.

Among other things, the bill gives the LIG independent authority to launch investigations, but only upon the filing of a formal complaint. Currently, investigations must first be authorized by a bipartisan group of lawmakers known as the Legislative Ethics Commission.

But it also limits the office’s authority to only investigate matters related to a person’s government service or employment, not outside activity. As a result, Pope said in her letter, the LIG would not be allowed to investigate “conduct unbecoming a legislator that results from such things as posting revenge porn on social media, failure to pay income taxes on non-legislative income, and other conduct that I and the public think the LIG should be able to investigate.”

“This legislative session demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority,” Pope wrote. “The LIG has no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations, the position is essentially a paper tiger.”

In response, many Republicans called on Pritzker to issue an “amendatory veto” by asking lawmakers to strike the language that prompted Pope’s resignation. Instead, though, Pritzker issued a different amendatory veto, asking lawmakers to delete language related to the executive inspector general.

When that veto came back to the General Assembly Aug. 31, the Senate accepted Pritzker’s request unanimously, 58-0. But in the House, Republicans pulled their support while several Democrats had already left the building, leaving the amended bill with only 59 votes, far short of the 71 votes needed to pass.

“I just want to remind the members that we have an excellent bill that has many needed reforms and it was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans in the House and Senate, and in fact, on the motion in the Senate (to accept the governor’s amendatory veto) it was unanimously supported,” Burke said during debate on the House floor.

The bill originally came about in response to several high-profile scandals in recent years, including the indictment of Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, who has since resigned. He also had a lobbying business that lobbied the city of Chicago and he was charged with attempting to bribe a state senator to support legislation that would have benefitted his client.

One of the provisions of SB 539 prohibits elected officials, including lawmakers, from engaging in “compensated lobbying” of other units of government, with the exception of Chicago municipal government. That was a carve-out specifically requested by Chicago city officials who argued that the city’s own lobbying regulations were already stronger than those in the bill.

But Rep. Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, urged rejecting the governor’s amendment and returning to negotiations over a stronger ethics bill.

“There's a lot of talk from your (Democratic) side of the aisle about how this is just a start and we need to do more and, you know, yada, yada, yada, everything else,” he said to Burke on the House floor. “I don't think anybody has ever really answered, what's keeping us from doing more right now? … Do we not know what needs to be done? I mean, what's keeping us from giving the legislative inspector general the power that the last three say that they need to be to be the proper watchdogs over this body?”

Burke, however, replied that SB539 was the bill that lawmakers had approved during the spring session. She also said the House has a standing committee that deals with ethics and that it will continue to work on other bills when lawmakers return for the 2022 session.

  • Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.