A pair of state legislators say this election season has exposed an ethics loophole that Illinois needs to close, but there are suspicions the introduction of the measure in the midst of a heated campaign season is itself a political gesture.
It's illegal for a director of a state agency, or any public employee for that matter, to use government resources for political purposes, but Illinois has no restrictions prohibiting agency directors from being identified by their title in campaign ads.
"Simply put, our legislation would prohibit executive branch appointees from participating in, or influencing political campaigns," Democratic Sen. Andy Manar said. "You have appointees who are confirmed by the Senate running departments who regulate, who distribute grants, who do licensing, who do all kinds of law enforcement. They should not be influencing the outcome in the state of Illinois."
Manar introduced the idea on Wednesday of prohibiting top-level state employees (such as those whose posts require confirmation by the senate) alongside another legislator representing central-western Illinois, Republican Sen. Sam McCann.
"We're not precluding anyone from participating in the process as citizens," McCann said. "They can still take part in the process if they have someone they wan to support, if they want to go to a fundraising event as a citizen and write a personal check. They can still do that. We're not precluding them. We're not revoking any of their rights as a citizen in the electoral process."
The legislation hasn't been filed yet, so it's unclear exactly where Cabinet-level officials' campaign limitations would stop and start. According to a press release, violations "could result in fines, discipline or dismissal by the governor."
Both men say the plan was inspired by agency directors appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner who appeared in campaign ads on behalf of legislative candidates supported by Rauner. Though they didn't get deep into specifics, they loosely cited agriculture director Raymond Poe and Department of Natural Resources director Wayne Rosenthal, both of whom were appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner to those posts while they were in the midst of terms as Republican members of the Illinois House.
Poe supported and endorsed McCann's unsuccessful primary opponent, state trooper Bryce Benton. Rosenthal is currently in a radio ad singing the praises of his replacement, appointed State Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Raymond, as she faces off in her first election against Democrat Mike Mathis, who stepped down as Macoupin County Circuit Clerk at the start of this year to focus on the the election.
In the campaign materials screened by public radio (which is not necessarily an exhaustive list), Poe and Rosenthal don't use their agency titles; more common is the label "former state representative."
McCann, who has faced a backlash from Rauner and other Republicans since he voted against the governor's wishes on legislation favored by unions, says the campaign prohibition idea is not an attempt to seek revenge.
"That has nothing to do with it. Obviously it [his primary race] called it to our attention … I think many of us were perplexed, if not shocked, that you actually could do that," he said. "I had constituents bring it up to me: 'How can they do this?'."
At the time that Poe endorsed McCann's opponent, leading up to the March primary, Poe was the acting agriculture director, meaning the Senate had not yet voted to approve his confirmation. McCann notes come April when the Senate took up Poe's appointment, he supported and even sponsored Poe.
In a press release, McCann does make an issue of former lawmakers, like Poe and Rosenthal, getting a pay and pension boost when they move on to become an agency director.
“I am shocked by the hypocrisy of longtime former lawmakers who saw their paychecks skyrocket to six figures – compliments of an executive appointment – now publicly criticizing candidates as career politicians,” McCann said says in the release. “Tactics like these are nothing short of pay-to-play politics, and Illinois deserves better.”
In what reads like a hit to Rauner, the same press release attributes the following to Manar: "The measure is intended to strengthen Illinois’ ethics rules so that governors in the future won’t be tempted to use executive appointments to influence elections."
Manar and McCann say their proposal is a matter of good government, and would align Illinois' ethics laws with other state's and the federal government.
The governor's office points out that Illinois isn't aligned with other federal ethics laws: Members of Congress must take a mandatory "cooling off" period before they can lobby in Washington, D.C. In Illinois, state legislators can serve in Springfield one day, resign, and then immediately lobby their former peers.
Likewise, while Rauner issued an executive order banning state employees under his office's jurisdiction from receiving gifts or meals from lobbyists, that remains permissible for legislators and their staffs.
"Governor Rauner welcomes any discussion to reform our political process, like constitutional amendments on fair maps and term limits," Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly wrote in a statement, referencing two of Rauner's much-touted agenda items that have stalled in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
As if to call Manar's and McCann's political bluff, Senate Minority Leader and Rauner ally Christine Radogno says their proposal may be too narrow.
"If we are to consider legislation to ensure ‘accountability to the taxpayers’, we should consider the same restrictions be placed on taxpayer-paid appointees to boards and commissions," she said in a statement.
That could be a death-knell for the idea, as some politically-active advocates and campaign donors and organizers hold lucrative or prestigious board appointments.