CHICAGO - Efforts to pass ethics legislation aimed at curtailing pay-to-play in state contracting in Illinois advanced this week, but supporters differ over its prospects given a bitter legislative atmosphere and the need to pass operating and capital budgets.

The Senate Executive Committee approved the proposals in a bipartisan 13-to-0 vote that came amid the ongoing corruption trial of a former top fundraiser to Gov. Rod Blagojevich alleging that firms were awarded for campaign contributions with state investment business.

The reform package, whose lead sponsor is Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, would bar firms or other contractors with more than $50,000 in state business from contributing to the elected official whose office awarded the contracts for two years.

If a firm is bidding on a contract, it must report all contributions to the officeholder influencing the contract's award. Contractors would be required to report to the state board of elections when they receive a contract and file with the board all contributions to political committees.

Although investment bankers face regulatory bans on contributions of any significant size to elected officials who influence the selection of firms for bond work, law firms and financial advisers do not and could be affected by the pending legislation. While regulators require investment banks to report political committee contributions, the legislation would extend such disclosure to the state level.

Cindy Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform who testified at the hearing Wednesday, said the measures are a good first step towards reform.

"I think it is a good proposal. It's narrowly crafted, and Illinois still will not have contribution limits, but it addresses what some folks see as the most egregious of abuses," she said, in which contractors receive state business either before or after making a political campaign contribution.

The package is an amended version of HB 824, which was approved in the House a year ago. It sat in the Senate Rules Committee and was never called up for a vote. Most agree the two packages are similar, with the key difference being that the House would impose the ban when firms hold $25,000 in state business. "There is very much a framework here for negotiation. I'm very hopeful but not naïve" about the legislation's chances, she said.

Senate Republicans who endorse the reforms are more skeptical.

"We think this is a shell game. They have sat on the House bill for a year and could have taken other steps that would speed its passage," said Senate Republican Minority spokeswoman Patty Schuh. If the Senate adopts the package, it must go back to the House and win passage.

The delay could kill it amid the acrimonious environment at the state capitol. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats but the Democratic governor and House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, have an openly hostile relationship. Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, has butted heads with Madigan and though he is more allied with Blagojevich, many members of his caucus are angry with the governor over past clashes.

The General Assembly has also yet to vote on a $58 billion operating budget or a $25 billion capital budget. The governor has proposed a capital plan that relies on $3.8 billion of new borrowing and $7 billion from a partial privatization of the state lottery with local and federal matching funds covering the rest.

Bipartisan support for new capital spending is considered one of the factors driving renewed efforts to tighten ethic laws. If a massive spending plan is approved, it would result in the awarding of billions of dollars of new contracts in the coming years - a situation ripe for fraud.

The other factor is the ongoing trial of former Blagojevich adviser and fundraiser Antoin Rezko. He is accused of seeking to enrich himself and the governor's campaign coffers by shaking down firms that wanted a piece of the state's investment business.

 

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