The timing of Wednesday's bill-signing party wasn't lost on anyone. Happy anniversary, defendant Rod Blagojevich! One year since your arrest!
But Gov. Pat Quinn mostly wanted to talk about Paul Simon, who died on the same date six years ago.
Illinois, without success.
"We are at that point today, in 2009," he said. And it's true, sort of. Illinois now has caps on campaign contributions -- except on the contributions that can have the most influence. Legislative leaders flatly refused to limit how much they could spend to promote their favored candidates in a general election. That's an age-old way to command the members' fealty, and it's not going to change.
Quinn signed the bill anyway.
It's "half a loaf," he said Wednesday. He promised to push for the other half next year.
The governor is fond of remarking on such occasions that Abraham Lincoln would be proud. He didn't claim to speak for Simon. But Simon's daughter, Sheila, a Southern Illinois University law professor who served on Quinn's blue-ribbon reform panel, spoke up for it at the signing ceremony. "This is a big step," she said. "This is not the last step."
Also joining Quinn were a dozen members of CHANGE Illinois!, the coalition that fought to get the bill passed, and a dozen lawmakers who helped make it happen. House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton weren't among them.
There were speeches all around, most of them filled with phrases like good start, first step and long road.
The new law "achieved 80 percent of what we set out to do," said George Ranney, co-chair of CHANGE Illinois! Two months ago, the group declared that it would not, could not support a measure that didn't cap party leaders' campaign spending, and it's still a sore subject. So it was a good day to talk about enhanced disclosure and strengthened enforcement, a good day to promise to keep fighting the good fight.
We fear that the reformers have lost all the momentum that was prompted by the startling arrest of Blagojevich. The ethics commission created by Quinn has disbanded. We fear that the political insiders are quite smug in the belief that they have dodged a bullet.
Insiders to outsiders: You got your half a loaf now go away.
We suspect the reformers will. It was exhausting for them to butt heads with Madigan and Cullerton and the Illinois tradition of protecting the status quo. The insiders wore down the outsiders. And now everybody will turn their attention to other things -- such as the fact that Illinois is fast closing in on California's title as the biggest financial disaster in the 50 states.
We wish that Quinn had used his amendatory veto to repair this flawed bill. Granted, we don't like limits on campaign contributions, and he does. But Illinois now has something even worse -- limits that actually enhance the power of a few politicians.
Those who are celebrating Illinois' first-ever caps know good and well that the new law tilts the playing field in favor of party leaders, who already have far too much influence over rank-and-file lawmakers.
So influence-peddlers will now get busy finding ways around the state caps -- Congress and the vast Washington lobbying corps will provide a handy guide for that. And party leaders won't even have to break a sweat. The force is still with them.
The rest of the package was worth keeping. Candidates are now required to report the contributions they receive earlier and more often. The State Board of Elections is now authorized to conduct random audits and assess stiffer penalties, though we'll believe it when we see it.
The law also creates a task force that will monitor how the new law works and suggest improvements, though you have to wonder why that's necessary when so many of the recommendations made by Quinn's ethics panel ending up on the cutting-room floor.
Quinn says he'll push for a constitutional amendment that would enable voters to enact ethics measures through binding referendums. That sounds like a bit of happy talk, a diversion. It shouldn't let Quinn or lawmakers off the hook for one minute. It's their job to end the culture of corruption in Illinois. And on that score they have plenty of unfinished business.
More tools for prosecutors to go after official corruption. More transparency in government. Fair, competitive elections. Just for starters.
We knew Paul Simon too. We don't think he'd be satisfied today.