Monday, March 16, 2009

What's your limit?

By Bethany Jaeger
One of the most controversial and politically challenging ethics reforms being discussed this session is limiting the amount people and private interests can donate to political candidates. It’s a fight against the establishment as much as it is an attempt to Rod Blagojevich-proof the state. His campaign collected numerous $25,000 checks from businesses that held significant state contracts. In fact, that’s the impetus for last year’s so-called pay-to-play ban.

Since that ban took effect, a new coalition of business, labor, civic, nonprofit and philanthropic groups has formed and thrown its support behind campaign contribution limits as the gateway to more drastic steps, eventually including public financing. The so-called CHANGE Illinois coalition is advocating for limits on the amount individuals, businesses and private interest groups could donate to candidates at the state and local levels. It would resemble a law already in place at the federal level: a $2,300 limit for individuals and a $5,000 limit for businesses, unions and interest groups per election cycle. In Illinois, the coalition is keeping tabs on two bills sponsored by Democrats, HB 24 and SB 1768. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno also is sponsoring SB 1548, which would limit contributions to $10,000.

Yet, legislative leaders express concerns about the practicality of ensuring a level playing field for all candidates. For instance, House Speaker Michael Madigan cited the example of a statewide candidate running for office against a self-funded, or individually wealthy, candidate. He mentioned a 2002 race of his daughter's, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, as an example. If she had to abide by contribution limits, how could she compete against an individually wealthy candidate who funded his or her own campaign, he asked. Of note, however, is that Attorney General Madigan is supporting the campaign contribution limits measure proposed by Rep. Harry Osterman, HB 24, because it is the most comprehensive, according to the attorney general's spokeswoman, Robyn Ziegler, this evening.

Senate President John Cullerton said he is open to considering contribution limits, as long as they’re not set so low that candidates have to spend more energy and resources seeking many more contributions than they already do.

Ann Lousin, who helped write the 1970 state Constitution and who teaches law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago, spells out some of the opposition to campaign finance limits for individuals, businesses and political groups. “If I can figure out a way around it in five minutes, you shouldn’t put it into the statute,” she said. “You go back to sunshine, sunshine, sunshine. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

She said individuals could disguise their financial support through friends or relatives, while state contractors could hide their donations by funneling money though subcontractors, which aren’t part of the public record. “All you’re doing is putting it underground,” she said.

She also opposes prohibiting people from out of state or out of district from donating to candidates because she said she believes that would unfairly hinder minority groups and female candidates, who often raise money from outside of their home bases.

“If you keep on putting in these rules, you’re going to define the only candidate who can run is somebody [who appeals to] narrower and narrower groups, somebody who takes only $100 contributions from a variety of different people, none of whom do business with the sate,” she says. “You’re going to get such purity. ... Who can run after a while?”

Cynthia Canary, director of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said contribution limits would challenge all candidates to reach out to more voters. And the measures supported by CHANGE Illinois would help disclose “bundling,” or the gathering of a group of checks from different people so that each contribution remains under the limit. The group also seeks more authority and funding for the Illinois State Board of Elections to conduct random audits so the campaign contribution reports don’t just end up in a file, unmonitored and under the radar.

Canary also said in a previous phone conversation that the goal is to enact reasonable, practical steps that will help scale back the influence of money in politics. And sunshine alone won’t cut it. “We have had sunshine for over 30 years, and look at the situation we’re in.”

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