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Doug Finke

STATEHOUSE INSIDER: How to go from good to bad, General Assembly-style

Ethical issues give legislative leaders fits

Ethical issues give legislative leaders fits

Nothing like snatching (near) defeat from the jaws of victory.

Just last week, House Speaker Michael Madigan said he was going to push a bill to address sexual harassment around the Legislature. It drew wide support and was seen as something positive. It probably should have been addressed long ago, but at least something was being done now.

And then, things started heading south. First the Daily Line reported that the Legislative Inspector General has a key role in Madigan’s bill, but there is no one in the job. There hasn’t been a full-time one since 2014, and not even an acting inspector general since 2015. But not to worry, we were told, because there were no cases pending.

Then activist Denise Rotheim testified about her own experience with harassment, which was followed by the revelation a complaint had been filed with the inspector general about her experience.

But didn’t they say no cases were pending? Yes, and that’s when everyone learned that in the world of legislative ethics, there is a difference between a complaint and a case, and you’d better use exactly the precise words when you ask questions.

That’s great for a court of law, but maybe not so good when you’re dealing with something like legislative ethics where the public is already skeptical about what is going on.

So in less than a week, a generally positive story gets overshadowed by questions of whether the General Assembly can or is even willing to deal openly with ethical issues facing it. Sheesh.

Mediocre Illinois

The Volcker Alliance released a report last week ranking the 50 states on the budgeting and transparency practices in each state. Each state was assigned a letter grade in each of five categories, such as budget forecasting and dealing with legacy costs (like pension debt).

Amazingly, Illinois got a “C” in transparency. Not amazingly, the best it did in the other categories was “D” for reserve funds. In the other three categories, it only got a “D-”, the lowest grade awarded.

Bonds and pensions

Financial columnist Malcolm Berko, whose work appears in The State Journal-Register and other publications, weighed in on the state’s recent $6 billion bond sale to pay down old debts.

A letter writer asked if he should buy some of the bonds. Berko’s response was, “If you understand and can afford the risks, then buy the general obligation bonds.” That part should come as good news for state officials who figured the bonds can help cut the state’s bill backlog in half.

However, Berko went on to say that “these tax-free bonds were issued with the dark hope that Illinois can repay its obligation via taxation and other revenues. Knowledgeable investors believe that’s unlikely.” Oops.

But it was another part of the column that was curious. It got into the state’s well-known pension funding problems and the huge debt that is owed to them.

“It won’t be a picnic when 815,000 employees learn that their benefits may be reduced,” he wrote.

That’s true in the sense the state Supreme Court has ruled that benefits can’t be reduced for workers already in the pension systems. So, yes, it won’t be a picnic if the Legislature decides to defy the court and reduce benefits anyway.

There’s also that 815,000 figure. The last annual report on the state’s pension systems from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability was issued in March. It said the total participation in the five state-funded pension systems – both active members and retirees getting pensions – is 489,330. That’s a lot, but it isn’t 815,000.

There are pension plans for other public employees, but the state doesn’t finance them. That’s one reason why a lot of them are in better financial shape than the state systems.