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Illinois ethics commission addresses conflicts of interest, closing the “revolving door”

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SPRINGFIELD (Capitol Bureau) -- Gov. JB Pritzker called for a crackdown on corruption during his State of the State address Wednesday afternoon.

Less than 24 hours later, the Illinois Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform was working to craft suggestions for the General Assembly.

The commission discussed several big ethical issues: conflicts of interest, transparency of finances for public officials and "revolving door" policies.

"Yes, we have bad apples. We have had individuals who have behaved poorly. We have had individuals who have done repugnant, disgusting things," said Commission Co-Chair Elgie Sims. "But at the end of the day, that is not the rampant perspective of individuals in the General Assembly."

The Democratic Chicago Senator says it's important for people to know their lawmakers are voting in their communities' best interest, instead of their own personal gains.

But what happens when officials and lobbyists fill out their statements of economic interest?

"The question says list the name of any unit of government. It doesn't say what you do for that unit of government," explained Brad Cole, Illinois Municipal League Executive Director. "That makes me wonder, what is the interest? So if you are employed, what are you doing? What is the interest that you might have with the unit of government?"

Cole also mentioned the statement of economic interest document hasn't been updated since 2012, though some think the questions haven't changed in decades.

He believes lobbyists should also be required to disclose if they are paid to influence local governments.

Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton says all of these ideas could help craft reform bills, "We're moving right along. I mean it's a big task, but we have some great information to pull from."

Closing the revolving door

Political insiders commonly use the "revolving door" metaphor when lawmakers step down and immediately become lobbyists.

Nicholas Birdsong, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, says most states have a one to two year cooling off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists.

"The general trend for revolving door or mandatory cooling off periods is to have longer periods, but there's a lot of variation in that as well," explained Birdsong.

He says Florida has the longest prohibition period lasting six to seven years after an individual leaves office.

"Don't act prematurely"

Since Gov. Pritzker mentioned this as a top priority, some at the Capitol are asking why lawmakers are waiting to pass a revolving door plan.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago), who also serves as Co-Chair for the Commission, says the group has to make sure the ideas they present are effective.

"There's a lot of nuance and detail that are coming out from these groups," Harris said. "So to me, it's making sure we've heard all the input from the public and the reform groups who have ideas to be sure that we don't act prematurely."

Harris mentioned the Commission still has time to meet and work on their suggestions before the end of March. The Commission will meet again on February 5.

Sheridan Swathwood

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