After several years of trying, Illinois finally has a law to combat pay-to-play politics. Who said miracles don't happen in the Land of Lincoln?

After several years of trying, Illinois finally has a law to combat pay-to-play politics. Who said miracles don't happen in the Land of Lincoln?


Truly, this development - thanks to action this week in the Senate - is enough to make believers out of even the most skeptical observers of state government. One lawmaker even let out a "hallelujah," adding, "I never thought we would get here."


Neither did we. It was in 2005 that the original anti-corruption measure was proposed by state Comptroller Dan Hynes. That measure sought to bar businesses with thousands of dollars' worth of state contracts from making campaign donations to the elected officials responsible for awarding those contracts.


But Hynes' proposal languished in the Legislature; Senate President Emil Jones wouldn't call it for a vote. Things started looking up this year, though, when ethics reforms passed as part of separate legislation. The House and Senate unanimously sent that package, House Bill 824, to the governor - seeking to bar constitutional officers from taking donations from firms with at least $50,000 in state contracts.


Reform hit another roadblock in August, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich overstuffed the bill with unrelated provisions and sent it back to lawmakers.


Which brings us to Monday. Following the House's lead, state senators unanimously overrode his tinkering - reportedly, Jones had a nudge from U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The bill is now law. The angels are singing. Good government advocates are crowing.


"Today, the people have won," said Comptroller Hynes, who instituted a contractor donation ban in his own office. "By enacting these reforms, the General Assembly has made it much more difficult for pay-to-play to flourish," added Cynthia Canary, chief of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.


Indeed, in addition to the contribution limits, her group notes that House Bill 824 boosts transparency: It requires big contractors to register with the Board of Elections so that the public can track political donations. And it has teeth: If businesses violate the ban, they could see their state contracts voided.


Oh, it will take time to clean up the way business is done in Illinois. This state has a well-established pattern of pay-to-play politics, as former secretary of state and governor George Ryan and others ultimately came to regret.


And Illinois has a long way to go before its elected officials can brag of being ethics crusaders. Canary's group has a list of reforms it wants to see explored: limits on the amount of money anyone can contribute to candidates, including limits on money transferred from committees controlled by legislative leaders; improved disclosure of lobbyist activities and fees paid to lobbyists; voluntary public campaign financing for state Supreme Court and appellate court candidates; and stronger enforcement of campaign finance disclosure laws, including random audits of campaign committees by the Elections Board.


Hopefully, these will see their day in the sun and be given thorough, individual consideration from legislators.


But for now, taxpayers should rejoice that Springfield passed this ethics law, which takes effect Jan. 1 - just in time, since Illinois would be doling out major contracts if a multibillion-dollar state capital plan passes.


"Unethical officeholders and contractors still will look for ways to game the system," Canary said, "but better rules will be in place to police contracting and to make it more difficult for favors to be awarded in exchange for campaign funds."


Hallelujah.


Peoria Journal Star