GOP lawmakers seek to stop ‘revolving door,’ pension payouts
But bills restricting lawmakers unlikely to get out of committee
By GRANT MORGAN
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD - With increased state and national attention on ethics in politics, a pair of Republican lawmakers filed separate bills this week to add their own reforms to the mix.
One would restrict former lawmakers from quickly becoming lobbyists. The other would eliminate pensions for new lawmakers after 2020. Both, however, are unlikely to make it out of committee.
Introduced by State Rep. Margo McDermed of Mokena, House Bill 879 would ban lawmakers from registering as a lobbyist, or receiving or making payments as a lobbyist, for one year or the remainder of their term — whichever is longer.
“The people who spend time [in Springfield] tend to stay here,” McDermed said. “Is one year enough to break the relationships? Maybe. It’s certainly better than one minute.”
Alisa Kaplan, policy director for Chicago-based Reform for Illinois, agreed with McDermed that any amount of time is better than none. Kaplan also outlined the main concern that comes with lawmakers quickly becoming lobbyists.
“The risk is that the legislator will pay more attention to a potential employer [a lobbying firm] than they will to their constituents,” Kaplan said. “You don’t want representatives to be supporting legislation that they think might get them the cushiest job when they leave.”
McDermed cited the recent example of former state Rep. Lou Lang, a Democratic leader from Skokie who resigned from office days before he was sworn in for a new term. Lang, who served for more than three decades, is now a lobbyist at Advantage Government Strategies based in Chicago.
He could not be reached for comment for this story.
But he is not the only state lawmaker in recent years to pivot quickly from politician to lobbyist.
According to McDermed, others include Matt Murphy, a high-ranking Republican senator of 10 years who resigned in August 2016 to become a contract lobbyist; former GOP Rep. Ed Sullivan, who in 2016 opted to start his own lobbying firm instead of seeking another term; Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps, who resigned in September 2017 to lobby for the secretary of state’s office; and Democrat John Bradley, who quickly turned to lobbying for a tax credit program he helped craft while in office after losing a bid for reelection.
The so-called “revolving door” issue of lawmakers-turned-lobbyists has come up before, and not just from Republicans. In 2017, Democratic Sen. Heather Steans introduced a similar bill, with an additional clause that banned lawmakers from negotiating for future lobbying employment during their term.
“Elected officials and state employees should not be able to immediately translate relationships built on state time into lobbying connections upon leaving public service,” Steans said in a news release at the time.
That bill did not make it out of committee. This bill likely will not, either.
“What I think will happen is that it will just never get out of rules committee,” McDermed said.
Meanwhile, GOP Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills is proposing an end to lawmaker pensions for new members after Nov. 3, 2020.
“We should lead by example,” McSweeney said. “Having a pension long-term shouldn’t be part of what the job description is.”
In fiscal year 2018, the General Assembly Retirement System paid out $23.2 million in benefits to participating lawmakers, which is far and away the smallest obligation of the state’s five pension systems.
But McSweeney said the move is not just symbolic. As for the four other state pension systems, he favors reform.
“The big issue is the 3 percent compounded annual increases,” he said. “We need to get to a point where we’re adjusting those at half the rate of inflation.”
That would require a constitutional amendment, which needs a large threshold of approval from the General Assembly and Illinois voters to be successful. It would also draw much opposition from unions, McSweeney said.
Neither McSweeney’s nor McDermed’s recent legislation has been assigned to committee yet. Part of the holdup is that Republican lawmakers have not been assigned to committees, according to McSweeney.