February 17, 2012

Simon institute plans conference on ethics, politics

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The impact of continuing political corruption in Illinois can be staggering both in terms of faith in public servants to do the right thing, and also economic development.

A conference on ethics and politics planned for this fall by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute will examine the state’s troubled history of unethical behavior by those in public office.  The two-day conference in Chicago will also look at underlying causes for the corruption and identify specific policy and legislative options for meaningful reform.

“This isn’t a laughing matter any more,” said David Yepsen, Institute director.  “This makes our state unattractive for economic development.  Who wants to locate a business in a state where you have to pay to play?  It makes us a laughingstock and a butt of jokes on late-night television.  If you tell people you are from Illinois you get a little snicker from many of them, and some comment about (impeached Illinois Gov. Rod) Blagojevich.”

The Institute’s “Conference on Ethics and Politics in Illinois” will be Sept. 27-28, at the Union League Club, 65 West Jackson, St., Chicago.  The Institute is now accepting paper proposals for the conference, and there are $1,000 stipends for accepted papers. The proposal submission deadline is May 31. Conference funding comes from the Institute’s endowment and a grant from The Joyce Foundation.

The conference in Chicago could be the first of many, with Yepsen noting he would also like to hold similar conferences in Springfield and in Southern Illinois. Topics under consideration include judicial reform, campaign finance reform, the option of open primaries, legislative term limits, lobbying reforms, whether there is a need for a constitutional convention, and improving media coverage of government and political affairs.

The conference will also look at “best practices” used in other states and compare them with Illinois, Yepsen said. Organizers expect to have keynote speakers and three or four panels covering the topics from the accepted papers

With former Gov. George Ryan in federal prison and Blagojevich set to report next month to start serving his 14-year sentence for corruption, Yepsen said Illinois’ problems are not typical of most states.  Since 1970, four of the state’s seven governors have convictions on their record, with all but one, former Gov. Dan Walker, found guilty of crimes while in public office.

While there have been other widespread corruption scandals throughout the nation, Illinois’ problems are unique, Yepsen said.

“What is unique is that it seems to have gone on a little longer here in Illinois,” he said.  “It says government service is not necessarily public service; it’s how can I take care of myself, my family, and my friends.”

Yepsen notes Chicago’s famed journalist Mike Royko once said Chicago’s city motto should be, “Where’s mine?” But the credibility stain that corruption leaves also undermines the public trust.  And corruption is also not limited to the northern part of the state, or solely with governors, he said.

“The issue applies to other elected officials down at the lowest level who see government service as a way to profit for themselves rather than serve the public,” he said.  “It also includes unelected officials, just people who have jobs in government and look at how to game the system to get something out of it.”

The ethical lapses in the state also make it hard for political leaders to tell residents that stringent measures are needed to get the state budget under control.

“Political leaders lack credibility.  They can’t come to us and say, ‘I need to raise your taxes and cut spending’ because people don’t believe them,” he said.

A study released earlier this week by the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs and the University of Chicago shows Illinois ranks as the third most corrupt state in the nation, trailing only New York and California.  The report also indicates that U.S. Justice Department statistics show 1,828 people in Illinois have been convicted in public corruption cases in the last 35 years.

“We have to get away from all of that in Illinois.  If you hold public office or work for the government you are there as a public servant,” Yepsen said. 

Yepsen uses the legacies of Institute founder and former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, former U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, and former Gov. Jim Edgar as examples of politicians who approached their political careers as public servants.

It is important to also encourage young adults and students who are considering public service work.  The Institute focuses on developing good leaders at a young age with annual events that include next month’s Youth Government Day in Springfield; Southern Illinois High School Youth Leadership Day; and the Paul Simon Leadership Conference.

A vital focus of a policy institute at a university is to bring academic experts, political practitioners and students together to solve issues, Yepsen said.  While there are ongoing reform efforts in the state, it is important to get the problems under control.

“I think there will always be a need to bring thoughtful people together and talk about issues of government reform and ethical behavior,” he said.

For more information on the program, contact the Institute at 618/453-4009 or at paulsimoninstitute.org/.