Democrats in the General Assembly seem to think a swatch of ethics reform is better than none at all.

They pushed through a bill that nips at the edges of Springfield’s decades-old culture of corruption, while leaving out measures that would have cleaned up Illinois politics in a much more comprehensive, enduring way.

A sandblasting was called for. Instead, they opted to feather-dust. Republicans opposed this lip-service approach to the ethics overhaul that’s desperately needed in the state capital. But Democrats control both chambers and the Governor’s Mansion, and had more than enough votes to get SB 539 passed Thursday.

Still, Democrats say they’re shocked, shocked! at GOP opposition. Why, they ask, would Republicans try to derail any kind of ethics reform? The answer’s simple. When it comes to corruption in Springfield, half measures won’t cut it.

So what’s the bill that Democrats passed? It demands that officials disclose more about their personal financial interests. It also keeps legislators from lobbying their former colleagues after leaving office, and permits the General Assembly’s watchdog, the legislative inspector general, to begin probes of alleged wrongdoing without the go-ahead from a commission made up of the very lawmakers the IG is supposed to police.

But given the scale of corruption tainting Illinois politics, that’s not nearly enough. We have said before what Illinois needs when it comes to ethics reform.

Give the inspector general power to issue subpoenas and release reports on lawmakers without the ethics commission’s blessing. Broaden the scope of the inspector general’s mission to include alleged wrongdoing outside of lawmakers’ public duties. Add nonpartisan citizen representation to the ethics commission, so that the 4-4 partisan deadlock that stymies investigations can be broken. Those measures are nowhere to be found in the version of ethics reform Democrats backed. Without them, the legislative inspector general lacks the requisite teeth to do the job right. Which is why, when she announced her resignation effective on Dec. 15, current IG Carol Pope said she regards her office as “a paper tiger.”

Backers of SB 539 are trying to convince Illinoisans that the measure doesn’t mean an end to ethics reform. They claim they’ll come back to it sometime down the road.

“Is there more work to be done? For sure. And I think that was something that we reiterated in the debate back in the spring, that this wasn’t going to be the last time we were ever going to look at ethics,” state Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, recently told the Tribune. “So I guess it’s just surprising to me that this strategy was employed by the Republicans to stop the bill from becoming law.”

Why not do it right, and do it now?

“I can’t think of anything more cynical, or that would cause the public to lose faith in us more, than passing a bill that is supposed to solve an ethics problem that has plagued the state for years … and then at the end of the day it changes nothing,” state Rep. Mike Marron, a Downstate Republican, said this week.

Marron is correct. Restoring Illinoisans’ faith in government requires both sides to set aside partisan politics and craft an ethics reform package that genuinely puts up a bulwark against corruption. Illinoisans have grown weary of politicians who pledge their souls to strong ethics reform while on the campaign trail, and then conveniently forget what they’ve promised once they’re ensconced in Springfield. Trust in government easily fades when citizens view their elected officials as guided solely by greed and self-interest.

Chicago Tribune

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