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With weeks of session left, dueling ethics bills stalling despite multiple corruption scandals

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Since lawmakers last had a full spring session in Springfield in 2019, four one-time state lawmakers have been arrested on corruption charges. Three resigned after being charged, and federal investigators pursued charges on other individuals with close connections to the statehouse and the former House speaker.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle stressed the need for ethics reform following the scandals, yet no legislation that directly addresses the actions of their former colleagues has reached floor debate.

With two weeks left in the 2021 legislative session, Senate Republicans and Democrats are pushing their own ethics reform bills, but it's not clear any will pass both chambers of the legislature by the end of the month.

On Thursday, Sen. John Curran, R-Downers Grove, introduced Senate Bill 1350 as the Republican ethics reform proposal. Senate Bill 4, introduced by Sen. Ann Gillespie, D-Arlington Heights, is the Democrats' proposal for ethics reform and is still awaiting a vote on the Senate floor, despite passing committee unanimously about a month ago.

Each bill has similar proposals to accomplish the same goals, but there are key differences. Under Curran's bill, the attorney general could convene a grand jury to investigate public corruption. Also, state's attorneys could use wire tapping to investigate corruption, and the legislative inspector general would not need approval from lawmakers before investigating and issuing subpoenas on another lawmaker.

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"It just goes several steps further," Curran said. "Our proposal strengthens the measures found in Senate Bill 4. It includes additional provisions that provide the state with the ability to clean up its own mess without having to wait for the federal authorities to come in and do it for us."

Almost all public corruption cases involving Illinois politicians come from indictments on the federal level. In the case against Commonwealth Edison involving former Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, a federal grand jury has reviewed evidence against the company and individuals and brought charges along the way. Madigan has not been charged. Former State Rep. Luis Arroyo was accused of trying to bribe a former state senator which was detected by an FBI wire, allegedly worn by former Sen. Terry Link.

Curran wants Illinois authorities to have that same power. He cited New York as an example where wiretapping helps nail down corruption cases. According to a February report by the University of Illinois at Chicago, New York and Illinois are in the top five states for most corruption convictions per capita.

The bills by both parties are substantial similarities as well. They each prohibit lawmakers and their immediate family members from becoming lobbyists and prohibit in-person fundraisers in Sangamon County the day before and after session. The Democrat's bill also makes the legislative inspector general a full-time employee and prohibits municipal elected or appointed officials from lobbying for any organization registered to lobby in their municipality.

Democrats are also pushing for a six-month ban on lawmakers becoming lobbyists after they leave the General Assembly. However, Republicans think it should be one year. The Democratic version also says a lawmaker would only have to sit out until their term ends if they resign early, meaning a lawmaker could still resign one day before the end of their term and become a lobbyist the next day.

Most states have some sort of "revolving door" ban, with a year being the most common ban and some states even requiring a two-year "cooling off" period. Curran said one year would be a "giant step forward" for the state and said he hoped that number would be a good median to support the bill.

Curran amended his bill last Thursday and Gillespie said she has not had time to review it so could not comment on specifics of the Republican's proposal.

"I remain committed to passing an ethics package this legislative session and am working with colleagues in both chambers to develop the best package possible," she said. However, time is short for action on any bill with the session set to wrap up May 31. The Republican bill would still need a committee vote before advancing to the floor, and there were promises made to amend the Democrat version before a floor vote.

"We are wasting time. This is not a process that has been transparent. And with just two weeks to go, the matter is now critical. We must pass meaningful ethics reform," Curran said.

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