Illinois state lawmakers heard about lobbying regulations, the lack thereof, and the need to close some loopholes at a commission meeting Tuesday focused on lobbying.

The Illinois Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reforms was created last year after raids, indictments and allegations of improper behavior by lawmakers and lobbyists.

On Tuesday the commission, made of a bipartisan group of state lawmakers and appointees from the offices of the governor, Secretary of State and Attorney General, met and heard from nonprofit reform groups, municipal and county associations, and lobbying regulators from Cook County and the city of Chicago.

The commission delved into everything from the definition of "lobbying" to if every governmental unit in Illinois, from cities to park and school boards and counties, should have some kind of registration system for lobbyists.

Of the thousands of units of government in Illinois, House Majority Leader Greg Harris said not many have a uniform standard for reporting lobbyist activities.

“And it sounds like among all of them we might be able to count on two hands how many of those entities have any regime [to register and track lobbying activities],” he said.

The city of Chicago and Cook County do lobbying regulations, as do a few other units of government, including state government, where people have to register if they lobby state lawmakers.

One person suggested requiring some sort of compensation threshold triggering registration to be $125, the cost of an expensive steak dinner in Chicago. To the suggestion of a uniformed standard statewide for lobbying registration, Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole said a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't work.

“$125 is ten nights out in Carbondale, and that’s not dollar night either,” Cole said.

Cole and others raised concerns that if regulations were too burdensome, they could chill everyday communications taxpayers may have with their officials.

"And I think it could be a slippery slope," Cole said. "And you would basically then only allow people who are registered lobbyists to have interaction with their local elected officials." 

It would also be an unfunded mandate on smaller units of government that wouldn't have the resources to implement a registration system.

Another panel the commission heard from during hearing was made of nonprofit reform groups.

In addition to lobbyists, Alisa Kaplan with Reform For Illinois said lawmakers also need to look at consultants.

“Recent revelations about Mike McClain, who according to press reports was paid $300,000 as a quote, unquote, consultant for ComEd after he stopped registering as a lobbyist, have raised the issue of so-called shadow lobbying,” Kaplan said.

Illinois state law doesn't bar lawmakers from leaving the legislature to immediately become a lobbyist. Illinois is one of a handful of states that doesn’t have any cooling-off period between when a lawmaker leaves office and when they can register as a lobbyist. Every reform group panelist said that must be addressed.

But Marie Dillon with the Better Government Association said she wasn’t “especially worked up about the deficiencies in the Lobbyist Registration Act.” She said, “the challenge facing the state should not be framed as a lobbyist problem.”

“The lobbyists who are players in this scandal, by and large, are not rank and file lobbyists. They’re elected officials moonlighting as lobbyists, they’re do-nothing lobbyists hired by people who expect something from the General Assembly in return, but I don’t think the problem is lobbyists,” Dillon said. ““I think the problem is the transactional relationships between special interests and the people who write our laws and set our government policies. That’s what’s poisoning the people’s trust in Illinois and I think that’s what our work here is about.”

The commission is set to provide recommendations for reforms in March.

Staff Reporter

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other statewide issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience, and previously hosted “Bishop On Air,” a morning-drive current events talk show.