Huffpost Chicago

What Veto?

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Illinois Senate passed one of the state's more fundamental post-Watergate campaign finance reforms _ a measure supporters say is a small but crucial step toward tamping down Illinois' reputation for "pay to play" politics.

Any political donation had been legal in Illinois, as long as it was reported. But the 55-0 vote on Monday prohibits people with state contracts of $50,000 or more from contributing to the politicians who administer them, or to those officeholders' opponents in an election year.

"Touchdown!" declared Comptroller Dan Hynes, who championed the measure and is a potential 2010 rival to Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has been accused of trying to block the reform.

The vote might not have occurred had presidential candidate Barack Obama not urged his mentor, state Senate President Emil Jones, to call his chamber to action.

"The Illinois Senate took an important step forward today by breaking the gridlock and unanimously passing a tougher ethics law that will reduce the influence of money over our state's political process and further the bipartisan reforms I worked with my colleagues in the General Assembly to pass 10 years ago," Obama said in a statement after the vote.

The action was a defeat for the governor, who earlier had used his veto power to rewrite and "improve" the bill with other ethics measures. A Senate committee approved Blagojevich's other ideas in separate legislation Monday evening.

In a state with virtually no limits on who can give or how much, supporters say the law, which takes effect Jan. 1, will help clean up the state's reputation for "pay to play" politics: The idea that if you want government contracts, it will cost you.

"We'll have a better reputation and a cleaner government as a result," Hynes said.

Blagojevich took office in 2003 as a reformer, replacing Republican Gov. George Ryan, who is serving a 6 1/2-year federal prison sentence for racketeering. But now Blagojevich finds himself in the middle of federal investigations into allegations of trading jobs and contracts for contributions. A top fundraiser, Antoin "Tony" Rezko, is awaiting sentencing on federal corruption charges involving similar schemes.

Nonetheless, Blagojevich vetoed the bill that passed both houses of the General Assembly without a single "no" vote. He made the contribution ban an executive order and applied it to all state officeholders, which could be challenged in court.

And he changed the bill's language to add prohibitions on legislators holding second government jobs, require fuller disclosure of outside lobbying work, and make lawmakers' pay-raise process clearer.

Spokesman Lucio Guerrero said Blagojevich's veto was far more significant than the Legislature's measure. "We are the ones that are pushing real ethics reform and reform for all state government," Guerrero said.

On the contrary, said Hynes, the vote "shows that (Blagojevich) has zero credibility on the issue of ethics."

Taxpayer pressure won the day, said Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

"It was less repudiation of the governor and more an acknowledgment that they had to do something to meet a public demand here," Canary said.

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