Sunshine is the best disinfectant. The oft-quoted observation attributed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis offers sound advice for Illinois policymakers as they strive to restore some modicum of public trust in elected officials following the ouster of the disgraced Rod Blagojevich from the governorship.
Indeed, a testimonial came from the former chief executive himself, who told network TV interviewers he would not have used such salty language on the infamous taped conversations had he known the FBI was listening. (For once, no one suspected Blagojevich was lying.) From all indications, ethics reform will share top billing with restoring the state’s fiscal solvency during the General Assembly’s spring session. Without dissent, both the Senate and the House voted to set up a Joint Committee on Government Reform with a sweeping mandate to “determine what additional measures should be enacted to reform Illinois government and ensure that citizens receive the honest services to which they are rightfully due from their public servants.”
The vote came on the heels of Gov. Pat Quinn’s first executive order, giving official governmental status to the Illinois Reform Commission he named as lieutenant governor. Headed by former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, the panel’s charge is to propose ways to eliminate what Quinn called “a culture of corruption” plaguing state government.
A good first step would be to open state government to greater public scrutiny. Secrecy seemed the watchword for Blagojevich, who maintained tight control over routine information to make sure nothing went out that might somehow undercut the administration’s political message. Agency spokespeople were brought into a centralized propaganda operation, and denial became the default response to requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The FOI law certainly needs to be strengthened — for example, there are no penalties for ignoring it — but in the meantime, its shortcomings can be mitigated by a governor who makes clear to everyone in his administration that the people have a right to review government records.
Moreover, to make it easier for citizens to understand state government operations, every agency should be required to post online and to update regularly such basic information as its mission, its budget by program, its workforce by position and average salary, and performance measures that would let site visitors know how well the agency is doing.
Some already do a fairly decent job of informing the public. The state Board of Education, for example, posts a detailed explanation of its annual budget request each year well before lawmakers begin crafting the next year’s budget; the agency also provides extensive data online about every school district in the state.
Others, though, need serious attention. The governor’s Management and Budget Office, for example, posts quarterly financial reports on its site, but the most recent one available is for the three months that ended December 31, 2007. In similar fashion, the Corrections Department site has a very informative, one-page statistical breakdown about inmate population — as of June 30, 2005.
If citizens had readily available comprehensive, up-to-date information about state government operations, perhaps fewer folks would write well-meaning letters to the editor suggesting the state’s fiscal problems could be solved by cutting legislative pay raises.
Reformers, meanwhile, are hoping to parlay the Blagojevich hangover into meaningful changes in the state’s wide-open system of campaign finance, such as limiting the size of contributions, banning donations entirely from corporations or labor unions, and even paying for campaigns with public funds. Those good ideas have foundered in the past and will engender serious opposition this spring. Perhaps a more attainable goal would be beefing up current campaign disclosure regulations to shed more light on the process by requiring more frequent, more complete disclosure.
Currently, political committees must file reports every six months and 30 days before a general election. Contributions of $500 or more after the 30-day deadline must be reported within two business days of receipt. Requiring quarterly — or even monthly — filings would provide timelier information at minimum hassle for committees, most of which file electronically.
In similar fashion, candidates are supposed to report a contributor’s occupation and employer, but the rule is often disregarded. Why not impose financial penalties on campaign committees that routinely flout it?
On a broader scale, a dozen years ago a campaign finance task force co-chaired by Paul Simon and William Stratton called for creation of an oversight commission to monitor the state’s campaign finance system and make reports to the governor and lawmakers after each general election, identifying problems and recommending changes. The idea was sound then, and such a panel now could be empowered to investigate and punish disclosure irregularities, a role beyond the state elections board’s mandate.
Two other areas seem particularly ripe for an added ray or two of sunshine.
The first is the economic interest statement public officials must file each year. The reporting requirement is so loose, three-quarters of the questions about possible conflicts were answered “none” or “not applicable” on 2007 forms, an analysis by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform found. The advocacy group is calling for more detailed information about income and investments of public officials to help citizens judge whether conflicts are present. Like campaign disclosure forms, the economic statements should be available online.
The other is lobbyist disclosure. Current law requires general information about a lobbyist’s clients and expenditures, but not disclosure of which officials are contacted or what issues are discussed, topics that the public deserves to know. Reformers also want lobbyists to disclose terms of their contracts, including how they are paid.
Will such sunshine steps eradicate corruption? Likely not. But the more information citizens have, the better able they will be to judge in whose interest public officials are acting.
From all indications, ethics reform will share top billing with restoring the state’s fiscal solvency during the General Assembly’s spring session.
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Illinois Issues, March 2009