Ethics and lobbying reform is on the minds of many in Illinois. This is a good thing. But reforms must be developed and implemented carefully and carefully respect the structures and progress made in local home rule communities. And certainly, in the search for uniformity, the General Assembly would not wish to appear to weaken rules for which it perhaps cannot yet gain consensus on a statewide basis.
Chicago has been regulating lobbying since the enactment of the Governmental Ethics Ordinance during Harold Washington’s administration in 1987. Lobbying laws have been amended nearly a dozen times since then. Today, under Mayor Lightfoot, we have an all-time high of about 825 lobbyists registered, representing about 2,000 different clients, in about 50 different industries or sectors of our economy.
Last Spring, we became the first jurisdiction in Illinois to ban all State and local elected officials from lobbying on behalf of clients before any part of City government and to ban our own elected officials from lobbying anywhere in the State, whether for pay or gratis. And, for the past 16 months, Chicago has been working with representatives from our non-profit community, both large and small alike, to ensure their lobbying efforts are captured and made public, like the activities of those in the private sector. These talks take time because there are nuanced issues with not-for-profit interactions with government and date back to reforms made under Rich Daley and then later under Rahm Emanuel.
We applaud efforts in the General Assembly to “get it right.” In fact, experts from our Board of Ethics testified before General Assembly committees to offer insights and assistance. However, while some of provisions in proposed bills may benefit Illinois municipalities that have no lobbying laws, they propose to supersede our 34-year-old lobbying regulation structure by requiring lobbyists and their clients to register in Springfield even if they only lobby the 53 Chicago elected officials, or any City “commissioners.” This would make Chicago’s 34-year-old law, effectively administered and enforced by the Board of Ethics, unenforceable. It would also make irrelevant the progress we have made with our non-profit community, by requiring them to register in Springfield without the benefits and exceptions afforded non-profits by the Internal Revenue Service. These proposals are, understandably, of great concern to our non-profit community and all citizens of Chicago.
A law that supersedes Chicago’s would end Chicago’s effective and efficient lobbying registration and enforcement regime. In fact, the current version of Senate Bill 4 would be harmful, by negating and superseding provisions in Chicago’s lobbying laws that are stricter than those in current or proposed State law. These are not limited to the “cross-lobbying” bans mentioned above, but also extend to “revolving door” cooling off periods during which former officials are banned from lobbying their former government employers, and to the information lobbyists must report to the public every quarter. Achieving ethics reform is not done by weakening the current Chicago approach that has been hard fought and aggressively enforced over decades.
We urge the General Assembly to consider meaningful reform efforts, but to exempt from home rule pre-emption, jurisdictions that have taken the time to draft, refine, and enact effective lobbying laws. These include the Chicago (since 1987), Cook County (since 1994), and, just last month, Elgin. Other jurisdictions are considering such laws. We support our Springfield colleagues and applaud the will they have shown to tackle these problems. But superseding and weakening long-standing laws of units of local government, along with the jurisprudence and practical knowledge these governments have developed over many long years, is not the correct approach.
Michele Smith is alderman of the 43rd Ward and chairs the City Council Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight.
William F. Conlon is the chair of the Chicago Board of Ethics and is a retired partner at Sidley Austin LLP.
Steven I. Berlin is executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics and immediate past president of the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws.
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