Monday, November 28, 2011

Lawmakers look at public campaign financing and corporate tax breaks

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois lawmakers might approve tax cuts to help keep businesses in the state, but they apparently are a long way off from shelling out state dollars to finance political races.

A task force created under the law that set campaign donation limits in Illinois is delving into other potential campaign finance reforms. Today during a legislative hearing, the group looked at public funding of campaigns.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, told the task force that she doesn’t think the recently enacted contribution limits will change much in the state. “While I voted for the campaign [contribution] limits … I don’t really think that they do anything to take money out of campaigns, and out of politics, and out of influence of government. So, I would say, ‘Yes, we did that.’ But that’s been done since the 1970s at the federal level, and I don’t see anything that’s removed the influence of money or reduced the amount of expenditures on campaigns on the federal level,” she said. “So I don’t think that there’s any need to wait to see what the impact will be in the state of Illinois.”

Nekrtiz said that she supports spending limits. However, she said “the U.S. Supreme Court is not headed in that direction. So we have to find an alternate method to get that done, and I think the next best thing is to create incentives for candidates to control spending.”

She said that during the current budget crisis, money is probably too tight for the state to offer public funds to political candidates. But she said lawmakers should have a plan for when the state is on better financial footing. “It’s critical that we have the dialogue and be prepared [for] such time as we can come up with a source of funding for public financing.”

However, Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said any plan to publicly fund governor or General Assembly races would not find enough support to become a reality. “If you are trying to get a system to substitute public money for private money, I don’t think there’s a political will to do that. The cost is just way too high, and I’m not even sure that it’s good public policy to try and do that. You’d be spending so much money to affect a very small number of races, and the rest of it would be going to people who were either going to lose or win regardless of how much money was there.” Redfield said many candidates in close races likely would not take public funds because then they would be tied to a set amount of spending. “There are states that finance their gubernatorial races through public finance, and there’s longstanding traditions, and it would be really bad form not to take the money. They tend to be smaller states where it’s a lot cheaper to run. But to institute that kind of system in Illinois would be very difficult.”

The federal government offers public funding for presidential races, and at least a dozen states have some sort of public funding system for elected offices.

Redfield said that instead,  Illinois should offer smaller grants to candidates who raise money from small contributions, which often come from private citizens. Redfield said such grants would “encourage candidates to raise money in small amounts and provide resources for people who otherwise would not be able to run.”

He added, “Those are positive things for the system, but they’re not game changes in terms of who control the House or the Senate.”

Redfield did advocate for public funding for judicial races, saying that the state’s judiciary may have “crisis of credibility” in its future. “The more that you get big private interests that are interested in the outcome of a judicial decision engaged in political campaigns, the more you’re going to call the independence of the judiciary into question, and that’s very corrosive. If people don’t accept the legitimacy of the courts, the foundation of the whole system is gone.”

Meanwhile, the House Revenue and Finance Committee approved a plan today that is geared at keeping two businesses in the state.

Senate Bill 397 would offer about $100 million in tax breaks to the CME Group, which owns the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade, and Sears, both of which have recently threatened to leave the state. Other breaks meant to benefit the business community at large, such as an extension of the research and development tax credit, are also in the bill.

The plan also includes an increase to the earned income tax credit and a $50 bump in the personal income tax exemption. The proposal would cost an estimated $250 million annually, which is scaled back from a plan floated last week that would have eventually cost the state about $850 million a year. A vote on the package is expected in the House tomorrow.

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