No Momentum for Stricter Campaign Cash Limits | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

No Momentum for Stricter Campaign Cash Limits

"Government reform" was the name of the game last year in Illinois. After Governor Rod Blagojevich was removed, Democratic leaders tried to show that ethics topped their agenda. They passed a bunch of bills on the topic, including a controversial overhaul of campaign finance laws. Advocates for more-sweeping changes reluctantly endorsed the plan, and pledged to keep fighting. But the momentum is gone. 

A coalition of business, community and civic groups came together about a year ago to form CHANGE Illinois. Their mission: work to prevent future embarrassments to the state. For months they fought for the grand-daddy of all so-called reforms: limits on donations to political campaigns. And last fall they found themselves in the room, negotiating a final bill with Democratic leaders. George Ranney is a CHANGE Illinois co-chair.

RANNEY: We got - I would say - about 80 percent of what we were trying to achieve. That's a huge, huge proportion to start out with.

What Ranney's group did not get was a limit on how much political parties and leaders could give candidates in general elections. All other direct donations would be limited - except for those.

JACOBS: I do believe that the reform group has done a great job of selling out.

Senator Mike Jacobs was one of only a handful of Democratic lawmakers to oppose the compromise that CHANGE Illinois agreed to. He argued the bill gives too much power to party leaders, an argument also made by the Chicago Tribune editorial board. It wrote that the "the reformers caved" by agreeing to a "meaningless compromise." "A crock," the paper called the bill.
RANNEY: We were, in a way, victims of our own success by setting our sights so high for ourselves and others.

That's Ranney again, speaking at a CHANGE Illinois celebration this month at a downtown Chicago office building. There were drinks...

AMBI: ice sounds
Finger foods...

TAPE: I think the steak went, yeah, very fast.

Lots of congratulations, and a pep talk.

RANNEY: We need to understand also, that we've got more to do. Specifically on campaign donation limits for political parties.

But it won't be easy, they admit, in part because of the the singular focus at the moment on state budget problems. Cindi Canary leads the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, part of the coalition.

CANARY: I think it's absolutely clear that leadership has no interest in opening up this discussion again at this point. That said, they had no interest in having this discussion at all last year.

And there are pending bills that would do what Canary wants: limit how much political parties can give candidates in general elections. But those bills have gotten zero traction in the legislature.

MAY: It's not really moving.

One of them is sponsored by Democratic Representative Karen May. She was on the House floor last week, on her cell phone, when I caught up with her.

MAY: Everything goes to Rules Committee first, and then it's assigned to a substantive committee from there. So this bill was never was never assigned to a substantive committee.

May says she told House Speaker Mike Madigan that she was introducing the bill, and he told her he didn't agree with it.

MAY: I didn't push that strongly on it. I didn't, like, send him a formal letter and make a formal request.

The Republicans have pushed on this - three times trying to get a similar bill out of committee. And each time, May sided with her party and voted to keep the GOP bill stuck. Republican leader Tom Cross says May's refusal to push the point with Madigan shows why donation limits for political leaders are so necessary.

CROSS: The speaker has funded their races, and helped them get to the General Assembly. And if they vote contrary to what the speaker wants - he wants this bill to stay in Rules - then they've irritated the speaker.

This argument of party leader domination is dismissed by Madigan's spokesman, Steve Brown.

BROWN: The whole kind of misguided, inflated notion that legislative leaders bully people and threaten people with campaign contributions [is] misguided, not well informed, not a lot of evidence to back it up.
HUDZIK: So you're saying that doesn't happen ever?
BROWN: I'm saying there's no record of it happening...It's a popular myth, but there's no evidence of it.

Brown says if the parties were subject to donation limits in the general elections, special interests would bombard Democratic candidates with negative ads they wouldn't have the money to counteract.

Just how these new rules for political cash will play out for voters is anything but clear. That's because none of the donation caps will affect this year's election - one more round of limit-free campaigns.

Music Button: Grant Green, “My Little Suede Shoes”, from the CD The Latin Bit, (Blue Note)

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