* Hannah Meisel at the Daily Line…
During his State of the State address Wednesday, Pritzker said there should be better disclosure of possible conflicts of interest lawmakers have, and consequences for voting on bills that pose a conflict.
“Disclosure of conflicts of interest and punishment for breaching them must be included in any ethics package for us to truly clean up government,” Pritzker said.
But several witnesses who testified Thursday said the current statement of economic interests disclosure form is anemic, and lawmakers who submit false information face no punishment. In addition, those who vote on bills that pose a conflict are rarely sanctioned.
“We do have a very casual attitude about conflicts of interest,” Better Government Association Policy Director Marie Dillon said.
* From the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act…
When a legislator must take official action on a legislative matter as to which he has a conflict situation created by a personal, family, or client legislative interest, he should consider the possibility of eliminating the interest creating the conflict situation. If that is not feasible, he should consider the possibility of abstaining from such official action. In making his decision as to abstention, the following factors should be considered:
a. whether a substantial threat to his independence of judgment has been created by the conflict situation;
b. the effect of his participation on public confidence in the integrity of the legislature;
c. whether his participation is likely to have any significant effect on the disposition of the matter;
d. the need for his particular contribution, such as special knowledge of the subject matter, to the effective functioning of the legislature.
He need not abstain if he decides to participate in a manner contrary to the economic interest which creates the conflict situation.
If he does abstain, he should disclose that fact to his respective legislative body. […]
When, despite the existence of a conflict situation, a legislator chooses to take official action on a matter, he should serve the public interest, and not the interest of any person.
* From BGA Policy Director Marie C. Dillon’s testimony yesterday…
It’s easy enough to fix. Make those guidelines mandatory, and require lawmakers to disclose when they have a conflict of interest and abstain from voting. And add penalties for violations, as the original commission intended.
But it’s not that easy, as Dillon herself found when she was unable to cogently answer specific questions from House Majority Leader Greg Harris about how farmers, for instance, should be voting in the General Assembly.
Another panelist dismissed Leader Harris’ farmer question as a “hypothetical,” but Harris countered that this wasn’t a hypothetical in the least - it is an everyday issue and is as concrete as an issue can get for legislators.
It wasn’t until Common Cause Illinois’ Georgia Logothetis spoke that the “right” answer was finally heard from the panel of testifiers. To paraphrase, if legislation benefits agriculture in general, then farmers can vote on it. If the legislation benefits a farmer-legislator in particular, then the legislator can’t vote on it. In other words, statewide farmland property tax relief? Go for it. Property tax relief focused on farmland in your section of your township? Run away.
Even so, the reformers inexplicably offered no specific statutory language to address this serious problem.
“How do you not come with a copy of a model law from X state and say, ‘Here, let’s try this, it works there,’” marveled one baffled supporter.
Many, many legislators want reform, but they’re absolutely not going to pass any regulatory laws that will unexpectedly or unfairly trip them up. “We’ll know it when we see it,” is, to them, a recipe for disaster. They’ll pass broad, draconian laws and let the executive branch sort out the rules for everyone else, but not when their own necks are on the line.
Nope, nope, nope. One wrong vote and poof goes the career. Ain’t gonna do it.
Most legislators want reform, but they also don’t want to pay the ultimate price or be eternally dragged through the mud by over-zealous, nitpicky investigators because they were too busy, ill-advised or incompetent to properly fill out some form that nobody will read until somebody gets raided by the feds.
Instead, they want “crystal clear” language to make sure that honest legislators always know where the line is, as Sen. Dan McConchie (R-) explained during yesterday’s hearing. The reformers should’ve brought specific proposed language with them. Instead, some couldn’t even answer basic questions.
* Other states do things differently…
Nicholas Birdsong, a policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said conflict of interest laws vary widely among the states. He said 35 states require lawmakers to recuse themselves from votes in which they have a conflict of interest and 13 states, including Illinois, leave the decision up to the lawmaker.
In Tennessee, where the rules are different in each chamber, the state House has a mandatory recusal policy and the state Senate has a discretionary policy. Utah, Birdsong said, requires legislators to vote if they are present, regardless of whether they have a conflict.
Birdsong said some states have adopted the idea that lawmakers should be able to vote, even if they have a conflict of interest, because “legislators are elected and they’re obligated to vote according to the will of their constituents regardless of whether or not it serves or hurts their interest, and so having these sort of mandatory recusal rules essentially limits their ability to do their jobs.”
More state info is here.