CHICAGO - With Illinois' political ethics getting national scrutiny, the state Senate yesterday approved a series of reforms pushed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich one day after the chamber unanimously overrode his veto of a first-time ban on campaign contributions from contractors with large state contracts.
The measures, advanced to the House by the Senate yesterday in a 50-to-1 vote, were written into the original bipartisan ethics bill by Blagojevich when he vetoed the measure last month. The original bill won overwhelming approval from the General Assembly this spring.
The measures revise how legislative pay raises take effect, ban lawmakers from holding paid positions with some units of local government, and require that legislators' spouses disclose any lobbying activity for boards, commissions, or units of local government.
Blagojevich proposed those reforms, saying the original bill that contained the ban on contributions from businesses with more than $50,000 in state contracts to the state officeholder who awards the work didn't go far enough to curtail pay-to-play. He enacted the contractor ban last month by an executive order effective Jan. 1.
The legislation, which also takes effect Jan. 1, is broader than the executive order. It applies to certain state authorities, including the Illinois Toll Highway Authority.
"We are now one step closer to bringing much-needed reform to state government and eliminating the conflicts of interest that have been inherent in Springfield," the governor, a beneficiary of large donations from state contractors, said in a statement yesterday.
The vote yesterday capped a two-day special session sparked by political maneuvering on both the Senate and governor's parts as Illinois ethics have become a campaign issue in the presidential campaign given the local roots of contender U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and his former position as a state senator.
Lawmakers and campaign watchdog groups, who spent months working on the original legislation, blasted the governor's actions, warning that a ban by executive order was too weak, would be more difficult to enforce, and could face a legal challenge because of its extension to include office holders with no say over a contract. The House overrode the veto earlier this month and sent the measure to the Senate where Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, had refused to call a special session to consider it.
Under mounting local pressure, Obama last week called Jones, one of his political mentors, and asked him to call a special session. Jones acquiesced and last Friday the special session was held amid new campaign ads run on behalf of the Republican nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., attacking Obama's connections to city and state politicians and their reputation of questionable ethics.
Chicago and the state have been the subjects of ongoing federal corruption investigations with the focus at the city level on city hiring and contracting practices and at the state level on the trading of jobs and contracts for campaign contributions. The governor's former fundraiser Antoin Rezko was recently convicted of corruption.
The Senate unanimously overrode the veto by a vote of 55 to 0 Monday, enacting the contractor ban in HB 824, and took the governor's proposals and put them into new legislation - SB 780 - which was approved in a 50-to-1 vote yesterday.
Campaign watchdog groups praised the veto override.
"By enacting these reforms, the General Assembly has made it much more difficult for pay-to-play to flourish," said Illinois Campaign for Political Reform director Cynthia Canary. "Unethical officeholders and contractors still will look for ways to game the system, but better rules will be in place to police contracting and to make it more difficult for favors to be awarded in exchange for campaign funds."
But Canary also expressed concerns over the new legislation, saying it needed more work to ensure its fairness and ability to withstand a legal challenge before passage. House approval is still needed.