For almost 40 years, Illinois’ per capita corruption convictions were on average 40 percent higher than the rest of the nation, according to data from the Public Integrity Section Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Regression analysis reveals that if Illinois had the same level of corruption per capita as the national average
For almost 40 years, Illinois’ per capita corruption convictions were on average 40 percent higher than the rest of the nation, according to data from the Public Integrity Section Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Regression analysis reveals that if Illinois had the same level of corruption per capita as the national average during that same period, the state’s poverty rate would have been lower by roughly 0.7 percentage points—that’s nearly 88,000 fewer Illinoisans living under the Census Bureau’s poverty line. The poorest Illinoisans tend to be younger, Black, unmarried with young children and less likely to have a college degree.
Corruption in the city of Chicago can be traced back decades and earns the city recognition as the most corrupt in the nation. Illinois is consistently ranked second-most corrupt state in the country. Four Illinois governors have gone to prison since 1973.
So why does that matter to the average Chicagoan?
Even with vast quantities of federal aid checks working their way toward individuals, as well as state and local government, corruption will continue to erode the foundations of Illinois’ economy.
Economic research shows corruption leads to lower investment, thus lowering economic growth. In addition, higher levels of corruption raise income inequality and poverty, because high levels of corruption result in rent-seeking activity that hurts the poor. Corruption often benefits a narrow range of interests at the expense of everyone else. Public corruption also leads to governments wasting resources that could otherwise be used to provide and improve services that actually benefit most residents, such as education and social services.
For decades, Illinois’ ethics laws made it possible for former House Speaker Mike Madigan to prioritize personal and political interests for profit and power. That power was used to further the careers of his allies, such as former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, who was sued for violating civil rights and housing laws by knowingly producing inaccurate assessments that punished poor and minority homeowners across the county.
In the more recent Commonwealth Edison case, the utility company secured legislative wins that resulted in higher profits for it at the expense of consumers. Whether it is higher property taxes because of unfair, error-riddled assessments or higher utility bills, the real victims of corruption are low-income Illinoisans.
So what to do? Corruption thrives when institutions are weak. The end of the Madigan era is an opportunity for the new Springfield leaders—House Speaker Chris Welch and Senate President Don Harmon—to prioritize low-income Illinoisans, those who have been mostly ignored by Springfield’s culture of corruption.
So far, proposed ethics reform legislation has gone nowhere.
One of those reforms would require lawmakers to provide detailed statements of economic interest and require them to recuse themselves from voting in the case of a conflict of interest, with real penalties for violating this rule.
In addition, Illinois must draw a clear line of separation between lobbyists and the lawmakers they lobby to keep Illinois clear of the kind of corrupt entanglements it has seen under Madigan. That means banning lawmakers from lobbying state agencies and local governments and requiring a two-year cooling-off period between when lawmakers leave office and when they can lobby the Illinois General Assembly. Currently, Illinois is one of only 14 states without a law to stop the “revolving door” between being a lawmaker and a lobbyist.
Lastly, the Illinois General Assembly needs an empowered watchdog who can open investigations, issue subpoenas and publish findings of wrongdoing without first seeking the approval of lawmakers on the Legislative Ethics Commission. Currently, the legislative inspector general needs permission from the politicians to open investigations or to publicize findings in most cases of wrongdoing.
Changing the guard by ousting Madigan was only the beginning. Illinois has much more work to do to end public corruption—and after nearly 40 years, it is about time it did.
Crain’s contributor Orphe Divounguy is chief economist at the Illinois Policy Institute.
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