A measure that would limit campaign contributions advanced through the Senate today. Supporters tout it as a historic first step towards reform, while opponents say it’s filled with loopholes that would preserve the status quo.
“I see holes in this that you could drive a Mack truck through,” said Sen. John Jones, a Mount Vernon Republican.
Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said HB 7 is not perfect because it is the result of long and difficult negotiations. “It does an awful lot more than I thought we would be able to do when I started this process a few months ago,” he said.
The bill includes:
- $5,000 limits on contributions from individuals.
- $10,000 limits on contributions from corporations or labor unions.
- $90,000 limits on transfers from statewide political parties.
The measure did not win support from numerous government reform groups, including the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and a conglomeration of powerful groups called the Change Illinois. It also was opposed by Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission on principle, said Commissioner Patrick Collins. The commission wanted a lower limit on donations and real-time disclosure of campaign contributions year-round. House Bill 7, on the other hand, would only require real-time disclosure during May, the height of the legislative action and budget negotiations. Otherwise, candidates would file campaign contribution reports four times a year.
Many Republicans stood in opposition, as well, and identified one “hole” in the legislation as creating a new category of committees, called constituent services committees. Under the measure, legislators would have a separate fund to pay for maintaining their offices and assisting people in their legislative districts. Contributions to the fund would be capped at $5,000. The money could not be used for campaigns.
However, Kent Redfield, a political scientist who runs the Sunshine Database to track campaign contributions, said money from the new special “constituent services” fund could be used to hold events for constituents that would actually be thinly veiled campaign efforts.
Good government advocates also didn’t like how often people could donate to each candidate. For instance, Harmon’s bill would allow individuals to donate up to the $5,000 limit every calendar year, as opposed to every election cycle. Opponents said the annual cycle would favor incumbents. Redfield said the annual cycle would benefit politicians who could start fundraising in office well before their next races. Yet, he said challengers would probably not be as successful starting early without an office and name recognition backing their efforts.
The most hotly contested aspect of the bill was the lack of limits on in-kind contributions from statewide political parties to candidates. For instance, the Democratic Party of Illinois could only donate $90,000 in cash, but it would still be able to give unlimited amounts of airtime for advertisements, yard signs, mailers and manpower to knock on doors to its candidates.
“That’s the big loophole,” Redfield said, adding, “it’s codifying the status quo.”
Redfield also said that limiting campaign contributions from lobbying groups might force legislators to seek contributions elsewhere, particularly their statewide political party leaders.
Gov. Pat Quinn, who testified in favor of the bill before a Senate committee Thursday, said it was good enough to move the public interest forward, but it was not perfect. He called it the “best we can do at this time.”
Harmon said HB 7 was the only version that could pass both chambers.
Collins, former assistant U.S. prosecutor, said legislators told him that the measures couldn’t be changed because they were tightly negotiated between the legislative caucuses, and any changes could kill the bills. Commissioner David Hoffman, inspector general for the City of Chicago, added that it was a convenient way of saying that no one really knows what would happen if changes were made, but they won’t take the chance to find out.
Sen. Minority Leader Christine Radogno also criticized the process and said that Republicans had been shut out of negotiations.
Harmon said that the issue could be revisited outside of “the pressure cooker” of a looming deadline and budget negotiations.