Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Campaign finance reform back under debate

By Jamey Dunn

Legislators are revisiting one of the most hotly contested issues that came out of negotiating the campaign finance reform bill last year.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno and Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, proposed limits on direct contributions from political parties to candidates during the general election. The two bills are similar, but Steans’ has higher limits.

Reform groups say the lack of such caps is the biggest loophole in the state’s campaign finance law. The sponsors of both bills say public perception is an important factor. They say even if candidates do not feel beholden to a legislative leader for channeling large chunks of cash into their campaigns, this common practice sends the wrong message to citizens. Steans and Radogno also agreed that limiting the amount of money a party and legislative leaders can give to candidates will encourage those candidates to seek support from their constituents instead.

“I think it’s a philosophical and practical and perception issue,” reform activist Peter Bensinger told a Senate committee.

Democratic members of the committee disagreed, saying that as long as the parties and caucus committees are allowed to spend as much as they want independently from the candidates, a right upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, limits on direct contributions will just drive the parties to spend the same money in a different way.

Senate President John Cullerton said the proposal was based in “fiction” and would drive party spending into a “world of independent expenditures” because committees would just spend money on campaign ads and mailers for candidates instead of giving the money directly to them.

“What about a coordinated expenditure [where the party works with the candidate] is so morally inferior to an uncoordinated expenditure [where the party spends the money as it chooses on behalf of the candidate]?” Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat asked.

Radogno said just because the state cannot limit independent expenditures doesn’t mean that it should rule out other reforms.

Spending limits for primary elections were included in the law that already passed. Harmon said legislators focused on primaries because if a leader wanted to try to control a legislator by threatening to withhold campaign funds, it would most likely happen in the primary election. Once a candidate makes it to the general election, the leader would not risk losing a seat to the other party.

Cullerton said that the purpose of political and caucus committees is to help its party members campaign. “The reason why the caucus committee was formed was to elect the majority of their members to the General Assembly.”

The bills will be up for more debate tomorrow, and Harmon, the committee chair, said there will be a vote. Check back for more details.

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