Reforming state government doesn't happen easily in Illinois. It's often preceded by a high-profile controversy that serves as the driving force for change. Here's a look at some of the reform issues that lawmakers took up in 2009.

Reforming state government doesn't happen easily in Illinois. It's often preceded by a high-profile controversy that serves as the driving force for change.


For instance, the exoneration of more than a dozen death row inmates spurred revisions to the state's capital punishment system a few years ago.


More recently, Gov. Rod Blagojevich's 2008 arrest on federal corruption charges sparked a near-universal call among lawmakers about the need to fix state government. Illinois' no-holds-barred campaign finance system should be a chief target, many said.


Even though not everybody agreed on exactly what "reform" meant, lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn approved several reform-related measures during the 2009 legislative session. In the end, lawmakers were split about how much reform really took place.


Democrats said they accomplished more than anyone had thought possible.


"For the first time in the history of Illinois, there will be limits on the contributions of money coming into the system," House Speaker Michael Madigan said as he touted the campaign finance reform plan in October.


But Republicans said the efforts fell far short of what was needed, largely because Democrats who control the legislature don't want to lose any of their political muscle.


"Those who have power are not about to give it up for reasons of good government," said Rep. David Leitch, R-Peoria.


Here's a look at some of the reform issues that lawmakers took up in 2009.


Campaign finance


The problem: Blagojevich used his position as governor to build up a huge campaign war chest, swapping campaign contributions for state business or other favorable treatment by state government, federal prosecutors say.


Legislative leaders long have used their political funds to funnel large amounts of money to their preferred candidates, prompting criticism that candidates can't exercise much independence because they rely so much on the leaders' help in winning elections.


The options: After much discussion, a plan surfaced in the spring that would have capped campaign contributions to political candidates for the first time in state history. Critics said the measure set contribution limits that were too high.


Gov. Pat Quinn at first supported the plan but vetoed it, saying that lawmakers should devise a better proposal in time for the fall veto session.


The solution: In late October, reform groups and Democratic legislative leaders reached consensus on a measure that imposes contribution limits and caps the donations that political parties and legislative leaders may make during primary election campaigns. Republicans opposed it, saying the caps also should be in place for general election campaigns.


Quinn has indicated he will sign the bill into law.


Freedom of Information Act


The problem: Blagojevich's administration regularly ignored or denied requests for public records and other governmental units in Illinois also had trouble complying with the state's Freedom of Information Act.


The options: Negotiations involving Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, the Illinois Press Association and others produced a rewrite of the public-records law intended to increase government transparency and accountability.


The FOIA overhaul shortens the time frame for governmental bodies to respond to public-records requests and limits the circumstances under which a governmental body may reject a request. It also, for the first time, allows courts to fine units of government for violating the FOIA.


The solution: On near-unanimous votes, the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives voted for the FOIA rewrite, despite concerns from the Illinois Municipal League that the measure would impose extra burdens on financially strapped governmental units.


Quinn signed the bill into law, though he included a written message citing "significant concerns about the effect of this bill upon law enforcement and local government." He urged the interested parties to "work collegially" to craft follow-up legislation that addresses the concerns.


Ethics


The problem: Stuart Levine and Tony Rezko, two Blagojevich appointees to state panels, were convicted of influence peddling for strong-arming companies that sought to do business with the state and pressuring them for campaign money and kickbacks.


On another front, state inspectors general who investigate allegations of wrongdoing often found their hands tied because of confidentiality rules and a ban on checking anonymous tips.


The options: Legislation surfaced that would require all appointees to state boards and commissions to file a written statement of economic interests.


Another bill specified that the results of ethics investigations would have to be made public if a state worker got fired or suspended for at least three days. It also permitted inspectors general to open investigations based on anonymous tips.


The solution: Lawmakers approved those measures, and Quinn signed them into law.


Other issues


The problem: Blagojevich's administration was accused of rewarding big-money campaign donors or other politically connected people with state contracts in a practice called "pay to play," which has existed for years.


Also: Toward the end of Blagojevich's tenure as governor, many lawmakers grew so frustrated with him that they proposed changing the Illinois Constitution to add recall, which would empower voters to oust a sitting governor.


The options: New legislation was crafted to enact tougher rules on the purchasing of state goods and services, ensuring greater public disclosure and discouraging undue outside influence.


A separate measure, backed by Quinn, spelled out a process for recalling a governor. It requires collecting thousands of signatures and obtaining the support of lawmakers from both parties. Critics say the proposal is too complicated and should be expanded to cover other public offices.


The solution: Lawmakers passed the bills on purchasing and recall. The purchasing proposal became law, but legislators delayed its implementation date until July 2010 after realizing state government couldn't quickly make the changes.


Next November, voters will be asked if they want the power to recall a governor. If they say yes, it wouldn't mean Quinn's removal from office. Rather, it would allow voters to use recall against future governors.


Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or adriana.colindres@sj-r.com.


A recap of reform-related measures the General Assembly passed in 2009. The full text is available online at www.ilga.gov.


Senate Bill 1466: Campaign finance


Senate Bill 189: FOIA rewrite


Senate Bill 1602: Boards and commissions appointees


Senate Bill 54: Ethics Act revisions


Senate Bill 51: Purchasing reforms


House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 31: Recall