Monday, February 23, 2009

Pay-to-play = unfunded mandate?

The Illinois State Board of Elections chair, Judge Albert Porter, told a state ethics reform commission Monday that the agency sought $465,000 to implement the acclaimed pay-to-play ban approved by lawmakers in September, but "initially, no funds were provided."

The law now prevents businesses that hold state contracts worth more than $50,000 from donating to the political campaigns of the officeholders who sign those contracts. The so-called pay-to-play ban is in direct response to fundraising practices by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose campaign collected numerous $25,000 contributions from state contractors.

Porter said the enactment of the law without the funding led to problems because the State Board of Elections lacked the adequate technology, staff and budget needed to carry out the part of the law that requires businesses to register with the agency before bidding for state contracts. That led to the enactment of a temporary system that used paper registration until an electronic program could be unveiled. The agency has until August 1 to fulfill the electronic requirement. To date, the agency has had 3,400 registrations, according to Porter.

He said the temporary measure is “getting the job done,” but his testimony to Gov. Pat Quinn's Illinois Reform Commission invited questions about how the State Board of Elections would be impacted by more reforms. The commission, which focused on campaign finance reform ideas Monday, particularly wondered about one idea to require politicians to immediately report donations online rather than report donations twice a year. Porter said a "real-time reporting" mandate would demand more manpower and upgraded technology, as well as state funding, but he said he’d have to get back to the commission about more specific effects.

More immediate reporting requirements are supported by such good government groups as the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (Cindi Canary's testimony here) and the Sunshine Database, run by Kent Redfield, retired political studies professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Both testified to the commission during today's hearing at UIS. Redfield said the current disclosure system creates a “document dump” every six months, challenging the public, the media and good government groups from following the money in a timely manner.

The commission also heard several takes on whether capping the amount individuals or businesses could donate to political candidates would be effective in Illinois, but we'll have more about so-called campaign contribution limits soon.

The lead commissioner, former assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, said just because Blagojevich is "pushed off the stage," the state still has to deal with its structural problem. As the lead prosecutor for the Hired Truck scandal in the City of Chicago (more here) and the Operation Safe Road investigation at the state level, Collins said he was looking for substantive and smart reforms, not reforms that just sound good on paper. While he said his prosecutorial experience notably predates Rod Blagojevich’s pay-to-play allegations, he added: "This stuff is endemic, it’s in the water. Pay-to-play is something that, I think, crosses political parties, and it’s really the underbelly of campaign finance.”

The special legislative committee exploring ethics reforms will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the state Capitol. Quinn's appointed reform commission will next meet at the Chicago Bar Association on March 5. Everyone is welcome, as these are public hearings.

No comments: