Thursday, June 26, 2008

Campaign finance law ruled unconstitutional

By Patrick O’Brien
Candidates for federal office who are running against deep-pocketed opponents could face tougher odds after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key piece of campaign finance law today.

In north central Illinois, the race for Congress in the 14th District could be affected.

Jim Oberweis, the Republican candidate, already donated more than $1.7 million to his own campaign through the end of March. Oberweis previously self-funded his campaigns for elected office. The Sugar Grove resident runs a family-founded dairy company and an investment firm.

His opponent, Democrat Bill Foster of Geneva, donated more than $122,000 to his own campaign. Foster is a scientist who worked at Fermilab, as well as a businessman who helps run a company that makes theater lighting equipment.

The federal law previously allowed opponents who faced self-funded candidates to exceed federal limits for the amount individuals could donate to their political campaigns.

The 5-4 majority, represented by Justice Antonin Scalia, said the law “impermissibly burdens the 1st Amendment rights” of candidates to use their own money as political speech. Previous campaign finance laws also have been ruled invalid based on 1st Amendment arguments.

Not everyone agrees that the ruling automatically gives self-funding candidates a big edge, however.

“Regardless of how substantially a candidate self-funds, the voters still have to like what they’re hearing,” said professor Ron Michaelson, former director of the Illinois State Board of Elections. He currently lectures on campaign finance at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

He said he believes the “millionaires amendment” — part of the 2002 reform package sponsored by U.S. Sen. John McCain, this year’s Republican presidential nominee — was designed to limit the amount of money spent on federal political campaigns. He said it was a step in the right direction.

“I think it’s unfortunate. The amendment was an attempt to try to level the playing field,” he said.

The ruling likely will affect races for Congress only, as the amount of money needed to self-finance presidential campaigns is now in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Michaelson cautions that voter resentment of candidates who may appear to be trying to purchase higher office may backfire.

The ruling, coupled with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s decision not to take $85 million in federal funds to limit his campaign’s spending in the presidential election, will bring campaign finance reform to the forefront this year, Michaelson said.

Obama defended his decision by saying the finance system was broken. He has said little during his campaign about reforming the system.

“If Obama’s elected, we’ll see how serious he is about the issue,” Michaelson said.

In another race for Congress ...
By Bethany Jaeger
Comptroller Dan Hynes endorsed Colleen Callahan, a Democrat, for the 18th Congressional District today in Springfield. At a press conference in the AFL-CIO building, Hynes said he supports Callahan, who is a longtime farm reporter for radio and television, in her race against state Republican Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria. The district has long been held by Republicans.

Both Schock and Callahan say they grew up on farms and formed a hard work ethic. Schock has served on his local school board and represented the 92nd House District for two years, proving to be a strong political fundraiser. Three months ago, his campaign finance report shows he raised more than $1 million and had about $188,000 cash on hand. (See the report by selecting his name in this pull-down menu.) See more about Schock and his race against Callahan in the April Illinois Issues magazine.

Callahan has less money and says she has never worked as a public official, but she recently was named as one of 20 “emerging races” by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That doesn’t guarantee, however, that the national party will flood her campaign with financial support. She expects her June 30 campaign finance report to show about $250,000 in contributions and about $130,000 and $140,000 cash on hand, although numbers could change between now and June 30. See her March report by selecting her as a candidate.

“I am a candidate who didn’t just dip my toe in the water here. I went right to the high dive in my efforts to serve our district and our country,” she said this morning. “This being a new process for me, I was told at the beginning and am learning that typically, the national party money from either party doesn’t typically come until later in the campaign.”

“Money begets money,” she added.

By Bethany Jaeger
While in Springfield, Hynes also addressed the state budget or lack thereof and sent a letter to legislative leaders and constitutional officers outlining what would happen if they failed to enact a state budget by July 10, more than a week after the new fiscal year begins.

The General Assembly approved a budget that Gov. Rod Blagojevich says is unbalanced by about $2 billion. He threatened to cut $1.5 billion if the House didn’t approve two revenue ideas that already passed the Senate. Expect to find out in the next couple of weeks whether the governor will go through with the cuts or call legislators back in a special session in an attempt to force them to vote on new revenue ideas to plug the hole.

If revenue ideas failed and the budget remains unbalanced and unsigned by July 10, Hynes says, first, about 4,900 state employees would be in jeopardy of not getting paid on time. Tens of thousands more would be at risk the longer the budget remains unresolved.

Second, the state couldn’t pay its other bills that reimburse health care providers and other social service providers. Most people focus on the payroll because they have a deadline and a more tangible effect, Hynes said, “but every day we don’t have a budget, tens of millions of dollars don’t go out the door and don’t go into businesses all over Illinois, which has a real impact.”

He called on the governor to lead and the legislative leaders, particularly House Speaker Michael Madigan, to do what they should have done months ago and sit down together to negotiate an agreed budget. (The leaders did meet, and Madigan did send his majority leader, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, in his place.)

“We are now in a game of chicken,” Hynes said. “We are now basically in a staring contest to see who blinks first. And the ones who are going to get hurt in this contest are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of vulnerable, innocent people.”

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