Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Court tosses out campaign finance limits for independent PACs

By Jamey Dunn

A week before the Illinois primary election, a federal court tossed out a piece of the state law that limits campaign contributions.

The court granted pro-choice political action committee Personal PAC’s request for a permanent ban on the amount donors can give to such groups. Previously, individual donors were capped at $10,000 and corporations and unions could only give $20,000. But after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, Personal PAC argued that such limits are unconstitutional, and U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen agreed.

The Supreme Court found that limiting how much groups spent independently from candidates violated their free speech. Personal PAC argued that limiting how much they can raise on such efforts, known as independent expenditures, violated their First Amendment rights as well. “Personal PAC sought to bring Illinois campaign finance law into compliance with what the First Amendment supports. We are thrilled that the Court ruled quickly and in our favor,” Terry Gosgrove, president and chief operating officer of Personal PAC, said in a written statement. The group claims that it has already missed out on about $100,000 in contributions that it would have raised without the caps and was holding a check for more than $17,000 it could not deposit under the state’s campaign finance laws that went into effect last year.

The group also asked the court for permission to form more than one political action committee. The new campaign finance reform laws barred organizations from having more than one committee. The ruling allows such groups to create second committees that would be used solely for independent expenditures, and they would be allowed to raise unlimited funds. “Personal PAC asserts that it only seeks to vindicate its right to create a separate PAC that would solely engage in independent expenditures, and once doing so, to receive unlimited contributions. In other words, it is not proposing to make independent expenditures and direct contributions from the same PAC,” the opinion stated.

“It’s about the decision I expected,” said Kent Redfield, director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit campaign contribution database connected to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “It seems like a reasonable extension of Citizens United, although it is an issue the court has not considered.”

But Redfield and others take issue with the logic of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling. “The fiction of Citizens United is that because it is an independent expenditure, the people making the independent expenditure are promoting a candidate and there’s no policy component, no quid pro quo, so there can’t be corruption or the appearance of corruption,” Redfield said. “It will be a way for people to funnel large contributions to support a candidate.”

However, he said that today’s decision is likely to have a larger effect on the 2014 governor’s race than it will on this year’s legislative elections because the legislative leaders are so well-funded and there are relatively few races that are actually up for grabs in November. “Elect someone independent from [House Speaker Michael Madigan]?” he asked. “It didn’t work out really well for [former governor] Rod Blagojevich and his Move Illinois Forward PAC.”

Redfield predicts super PACs will support single candidates in the 2014 races for governor and other statewide offices — much like the ones that have been making unlimited independent expenditures for Republican candidates during the presidential primaries and others that have been collecting money to help President Barack Obama's reelection bid. “The real muddling thing in all of this is, when you get to single-candidate independent-expenditure PACs,” he said, “is there a wink and a nod? … Is there leverage in terms of if certain things don’t happen you’re not going to get any support in the next election?”

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