Illinois' Campaign Money Caps Could Lead to Legal Clashes | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Illinois' Campaign Money Caps Could Lead to Legal Clashes

Illinois' reputation for money-soaked politics isn't going away anytime soon. Allegations against former Governor Rod Blagojevich only reinforced a label that's by no means new. This spring, lawmakers took a stab at the issue of ethics in government, and passed a campaign finance bill. But some advocates and experts call the plan sloppy. They say it's not only weak and full of loopholes - but in some aspects - may be unconstitutional.

For years, Illinois' been one of only a handful of states with no limits - none - on how much a person or group can contribute to a particular candidate. At the end of last month, the General Assembly tried to change that, passing this 70-page piece of legislation, capping most contributions beginning in 2011.

Very quickly, though, lawmakers found their effort almost unanimously panned by newspaper editorial boards. The papers called it " name only," "a joke [that] changes next to nothing," "squat," "a failed ploy" and "sham legislation."

HARMON: I don't think anyone was happy with it, and I think that's a good measurement that the bill was pretty good. No one on any side of the issue was altogether happy - everyone compromised, everyone got something and gave something.

State Senator Don Harmon from Oak Park sponsored the legislation, which would limit individuals to giving $5,000 per year to each candidate. Groups, companies and unions can't give more than $10,000. And contributions to a candidate are capped at $90,000 a year from political committees.

HARMON: For the first time ever, we're limiting the amount of money that can come into the system. This is a dramatic change.
CANARY: This bill - I think I was joking that it was drafted in a dark room by drunk people at 3 in the morning. But I was joking. I don't believe the staff was actually drunk.

Cindi Canary has led the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform for about a dozen years.

CANARY: Nothing is easy in this state.

And so it went this spring, when Illinois lawmakers tried to match all their reform talk, with reform action. Canary has a number of complaints about the campaign finance bill. But let's focus on one biggie, which she says could allow people in power to tighten their grip on that power.

Under federal law, candidates for president and Congress can collect $2,400 from a contributor for each primary election, and another $2,400 for the general election. Illinois' new bill - which applies to candidates running for state or local office - sets limits per year, rather than per election. That means an incumbent state senator, for example, can tap big supporters for $5,000 every year.

CANARY: $5,000 over a four year term, that's $20,000.

But say someone wants to run against that state senator, he or she might not get into the race until, maybe, two years before the election, meaning the challenger could snag only $10,000 each from supporters.

CANARY: It puts incumbents in a much safer position, and it makes it all the much harder to challenge them.

That argument could lead to a legal challenge. Twenty-one years ago this month, California voters passed Proposition 73, which limited campaign donations on a per year basis. A federal court struck down the law because it found the limits discriminated against challengers. Don Harmon - the senator who sponsored Illinois' bill - says the calendar year limits were only put in place to make things easier on the state election board, which'll have to monitor all the donations. He says he's not concerned about a possible lawsuit, pointing out some other states - at least five, in fact - currently cap individual donations the same way.

But another legal problem could surface. Paul Ryan is with the non-profit Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC.

RYAN: There's one provision of the bill that seemingly applies a contribution limit to a political committee organized to support or oppose one or more questions of public policy, which, I'm interpreting as meaning a committee formed to support or oppose a ballot measure in the state.

Ballot questions, Ryan points out, cannot be held to contribution limits. Or, so said the Supreme Court almost 30 years ago. Ryan says there's a reason it's alright to limit donations to politicians but not to committees working on ballot questions.

RYAN: Unlimited contributions to candidates and officeholders could corrupt those individuals, potentially. By contrast, in the ballot measure context, there are no human beings who can be corrupted by the contributions.

The sponsor of Illinois' bill says changes can be made if need be.

But last month, Quinn called the campaign finance bill "landmark legislation," and "the best we can do at this time." And though his spokesperson also calls the measure a "necessary beginning," she insists no final decision's been made on whether the governor will sign it.

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