Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reform do-over

By Bethany Jaeger

In an unusual move, the Illinois legislative leaders asked the governor to veto a bill that Democratic members sent to his desk in May. Gov. Pat Quinn obliged, saying he would work with members of both political parties, as well as government reform advocates, to start from scratch — and get it done by October 14 — to tighten up the rules for the funding of political campaigns.

Quinn vetoed House Bill 7, which would have established contributions limits of $5,000 for individuals, $10,000 for businesses and labor unions and $90,000 for transfers from statewide political parties. Quinn said since he received the bill, he’s gotten a lot of feedback from individuals, reform advocates and newspaper editorials that the bill was flawed and could have unintended consequences, as well as risked turning voters away from a system that maintains the status quo. In turn, Illinois remains one of only a handful of states with no limits on the amount individuals, businesses or interest groups can donate to political candidates.

“I’d rather take more time to get it right and have public consensus behind it than hastily do something that might have happened in the spring,” Quinn said during a news conference with all four legislative leaders. They were joined by reform advocates from Change Illinois, a coalition of about 50 organizations seeking campaign contribution limits, among other things.

George Ranney, president and chief executive officer of Chicago Metropolis 2020, as well as a co-chair of the reform group Change Illinois, said the governor and the legislative leaders agreeing to work out a compromise before the General Assembly returns for its annual fall veto session was a “major step in the right direction.” Next, he said, “even more so, at this point, we think there is an opportunity to do the right thing for this state, to enact a bill that has strong limits, that has the right kind of committee structure and, importantly, has a real set of provisions for enforcement.”

It was "not perfect"
Quinn’s veto comes after he testified in favor of HB 7 in late May. Sitting next to House Speaker Michael Madigan, the governor said then that the bill was not perfect, but it was a “significant step forward” and that it was the “best we can do at this time.”

His testimony contradicted the recommendations of his own Illinois Reform Commission, which wanted more stringent contribution limits and other enforcement reforms.

Quinn said today that he seriously considered altering the bill or adding to it, which would have sent it back to the legislature. But he said it dawned on him that it was better to totally veto it and make a stronger bill. He added that he would seek the commission’s input on a new version. “Sometimes when you have to alter your course to make things better, you do that. I’d rather make it better than to not do it right.”

Senate President John Cullerton said in Quinn’s defense that a new negotiated bill wasn’t ready by the time Quinn had to act on HB 7 (he faced a Friday deadline). “We asked the governor to veto this bill. We asked him — the sponsors of the bill — asked him to veto it. Because if he signed it, there are people here who think it could be much better, and that would be interpreted as accepting something that had flaws. We didn’t want to do that,” Cullerton said. “He’s not flip- flopping. He’s doing what we’ve asked.”

Cullerton added that the general areas they intend to work on include the level of contribution limits and the ability of officials to enforce the new rules.

Cynthia Canary, who previously described HB 7 as “phony reform,” today defended Quinn. “We often slam our elected officials for not having a backbone, for not listening to us, for flip-flopping. What could be braver than listening to the people coming to the table and saying, ‘We hear you. We’re going to try to do things differently.’”

Republicans, who argued they were cut out of the negotiating process, deemed the bill “seriously flawed” and urged the governor to reject it in totality and start over. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno today commended Quinn for “courage” in not signing HB 7 just to have something on the books. “As desperate as our state is for reform, and that includes campaign finance reform, there was tremendous pressure on the governor to go ahead and enact a bill that really would have maintained the status quo or even made it worse.”

During the spring legislative session, Radogno sponsored multiple versions of campaign finance limits. One version matched recommendations by the Illinois Reform Commission and Change Illinois. It would have established contribution limits similar to those set at the federal level: $2,400 for individuals, $5,000 for political committees, businesses and unions, and $30,000 for legislative leadership. Her new bill eventually will appear in Senate Bill 2464 (the link won't be available for a while).

House Republicans also supported a Democratic-sponsored bill, HB 24, that would have mirrored federal limits.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said today that agreeing to start over on campaign finance was a good beginning, but there’s more on the agenda. He said Republicans also want to address the idea of moving back the primary election date (now held in early February), allowing voters to recall elected officials, instituting special elections to fill vacant seats and reforming the redistricting process.

House Bill 7, as approved
HB 7 as approved by the Illinois General Assembly would not have taken effect until January 2011, after the next general election.

One point of contention among reform groups and legislators is that the bill set a pseudo limit on statewide political party transfers. While the dollar amount of transfers would be limited, the Democratic Party of Illinois, for instance, could offer unlimited in-kind contributions. That could include anything from support for advertisements, yard signs, mailers to manpower to knock on doors.

Anther debated provision would create a new type of fund for legislators to pay for maintaining their offices and assisting people in their legislative districts. Contributions to those funds would be capped at $5,000. The money could not be used for campaigns. Critics said the new so-called “constituent services” funds could be used as a loophole for politicians to throw political events.

And contrary to the wishes of the governor’s reform commission, HB 7 as approved would have only required real-time disclosure during the month of May, when state budget negotiations tend to peak. Other than that, political campaigns would have to file financial reports four times a year. The Illinois Reform Commission wanted politicians to immediately report contributions throughout the entire year. They currently only have to file major disclosure reports twice a year. The bill does include a provision to allow the Illinois State Board of Elections to audit candidates and committees if they missed two consecutive reporting deadlines.

House and Senate Republicans issued the following list of “flaws,” in addition to the points made above:

  • “Limits are based on an annual cycle, not election cycles” — Annual cycles could benefit incumbents who could raise money year-round, while challengers would struggle to gain name recognition and financial support.
  • “Too many possibilities for candidate committees” — It could spur the creation of even more political finance committees because each official and candidate would be able to have up to three separate committees, all with different contribution limits. House Minority Leader Tom Cross said that would cause a “diffusion of contributions, not a limitation on them.”
  • “No comprehensive enforcement mechanism” — The Illinois State Board of Elections would gain little power and financial support to enforce the new rules, although it would be able to audit campaigns if they missed two consecutive reporting deadlines.
  • “Doesn’t take effect until 2011” — That’s after the next general elections, which House Speaker Michael Madigan has said would make it fairer because candidates who started fundraising under the old rules would have an advantage over those who started under the new ones.

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