Friday, July 06, 2012

New law could roll back some limits on campaign money

By Jamey Dunn

Less than two years after the state’s first caps on campaign contributions went into effect, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill today that would eliminate those limits if outside groups funnel cash into campaigns.

Senate Bill 3722 would allow candidates in Illinois to ignore contribution limits when outside groups, called political action committees (PACs), spend money in a race. The bill is a response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows PACs to take in unlimited contributions as long as their efforts are not coordinated with candidates’ campaigns. Before the ruling, PACs could accept up to $10,000 from individual donors and $20,000 from unions and corporations.

Under SB 3722, is such a PAC spends more than $100,000 campaigning for a single candidate in a municipal race or a bid for the state legislature, then candidates in that race would not have to stick to limits on how much money they can accept from donors. In a statewide race, the threshold would be $250,000 spent by an outside group.

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a sponsor of the bill, said the new law is intended to keep outside groups from deciding elections by opening potentially bottomless wallets. “I think what’s important about this bill is that no legislator is going to have to run in an election — in which somebody comes into the election with big bucks — with one hand tied behind her back,” she said.

Reform groups say the law creates a loophole that will allow candidates to circumvent the state’s contribution limits. David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said nothing in the law stops candidates from having their own PACs that operate separately from their campaigns, much like both presidential candidates are doing in their current campaigns. If such a PAC spends over the limits in the law, then the candidate would be able to skirt contribution limits, even though the PAC and the campaign did not technically work together. “This bill lays out a road map for evading limits,” he said. “The only definition of independence in this thing is that you don’t actively coordinate expenditures. You can share vendors. You can share staff ... you can spend all of your money on one single candidate, which is again what we see at the federal level.”

Morrison acknowledged that the political landscape has changed in the wake of recent court rulings — including the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which allows so called super PACs to raise and spend unlimited cash as long as they are not working with candidates. However, he said SB 3722 goes too far. “No other state in the country that’s dealing with this problem has responded by saying, ‘Oh, then we’ll just take limits off.’”

“I think they would prefer a political landscape that is not our political landscape, and I have to say, so do I,” Currie, a Chicago Democrat, said of reform groups opposed to the bill. However, she said that the rulings allow big money into the system, and something must be done to keep PACs from hijacking elections. She said the triggers in the law are modeled after a provision in the original campaign finance reform law that removes contribution caps if a self-funded candidate spends over certain thresholds. “We’re not setting a low trigger. We’re setting a high trigger.”

Kent Redfield, director of the Sunshine Project, a nonprofit campaign contribution database connected to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, called both provisions “a security blanket that doesn’t mean much” in state legislative races. He said it is unlikely that an outside group or a self-funded candidate would spend enough to toss out limits in a state race because most of the campaign money flows through the political committees of the four legislative leaders. “The case where you’re going to have super PACs that are going to trigger this law is going to be in statewide elections; it’s not going to happen legislative elections because the leaders can spend unlimited amounts in any way,” he said. “The super PACs are the legislative leaders.”

 Redfield said the law would come into play for statewide races. “National groups are interested in the governor’s race, and they’re interested in the attorney general’s race.”

Quinn, who helped lead the push for campaign finance reform after his predecessor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was impeached and removed from office, said the new law is a temporary fix. “Bottom line: The rules changed, and this is a short-term solution that will help ensure fairness. This law is necessary to keep the playing field as level as possible,” said Annie Thompson, a spokesperson for Quinn. Thompson said the governor is waiting for recommendation from a campaign finance reform task force. The group is scheduled to submit its report in February 2013. “This isn’t by any means the final step. There’s still more work to be done,” Thompson said.

 Morrison said that during an especially busy legislative session, lawmakers pushed aside more nuanced suggestions that would not have involved tossing out contribution caps. “They were too busy with the budget, too busy with pensions.” He said supporters of SB 3722 agreed to revisit the issue after the task force makes recommendations. “We’re going to have to hold them to their word," he said.

 SB 3722 goes into effect immediately.

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