What was it that finally got Illinois' Senate motivated to fight pay-to-play-politics? Whatever the cause, Illinois is nearly unique in not restricting campaign donations from companies that seek state contracts courtesy of taxpayers.
What was it that finally got Illinois' Senate motivated to fight pay-to-play-politics?
Were senators spooked by the ongoing corruption trial of a former gubernatorial fundraiser, who allegedly tried to shake down firms seeking state business? Were they responding to recent testimony from another fundraiser who claimed that Gov. Rod Blagojevich himself pledged lucrative state "contracts, legal work, investment banking work and consulting work" to those who'd pad his campaign coffers?
Were senators reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which this month reported that some of the state's top-paid contractors — auditors, consultants, engineers — 'have loaded up Blagojevich with five- and six-figure campaign donations while reaping millions in service contracts under his administration'?
Or were senators having bad dreams about George Ryan, the former Illinois governor and secretary of state who in April 2006 was convicted on racketeering and fraud charges and sits in federal prison today?
Whatever the cause, it's time senators joined the crusade against pay-to-play. It was exactly one year ago today that their House colleagues passed legislation, House Bill 1, that would bar businesses from giving large contributions to officeholders responsible for awarding state contracts. Senate President Emil Jones refused to call HB1 for a vote. But last week, a similar, separate proposal unanimously cleared the Senate's executive committee.
The Senate pay-to-play proposal differs from HB1. For instance, HB1 would have prohibited businesses that hold more than $25,000 in contracts from making contributions to the officeholders who awarded those contracts; the Senate version sets the cutoff higher, at $50,000. HB1 required firms bidding for $10,000 in state business to disclose their campaign contributions; the Senate's disclosure requirement kicks in only after a contract has been awarded. HB1 banned a contractor's executive employees from giving campaign cash to an officeholder while bidding on a contract; the Senate would allow that practice, setting a $500 dollar contribution ceiling. We think House Bill 1 is superior.
Nonetheless, Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says the bills are "within spitting distance of one another" and something she can live with. Given the "corrosive" atmosphere in Springfield, the prospect of the Senate passing any reform is "the first hopeful sign I've seen," she said.
Indeed, for too long this state has allowed pay-to-play to flourish by not preempting or penalizing the players. Illinois is nearly unique in not restricting campaign donations from companies that seek state contracts courtesy of taxpayers. So while the Senate's response to Illinois' corrupt climate fails to overwhelm, it is nonetheless a move in the right direction.
If Emil Jones holds this one up and his Democrat colleagues stand by and say nothing with one of the most high-profile government corruption trials in state history ongoing, well, then the state Senate risks branding itself as the pro-corruption wing of the Illinois Legislature. If Jones & Co. continue to be an impediment to ethical reform, we cannot imagine how honest Illinoisans could have any faith left in their state Senate, at all.