Friday, October 26, 2012

Campaign donation limits to stay in place through general election

By Jamey Dunn

Illinois’ campaign contribution caps will stand through the general election, but a group that is suing to have them tossed out is not giving up on its fight.

 The Liberty Justice Center — which was founded by the Illinois Policy Institute, a self-described “free market” think tank — mounted a constitutional challenge against the state’s contribution limits for individuals, unions and corporations. The center filed suit on behalf of Illinois Liberty PAC, a political action committee that supports candidates who back "free market, liberty-based public policy."

The campaign finance reform law, passed in the wake of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment and removal from office, set a $5,000 limit on contributions from individuals, $10,000 from unions or corporations and a $50,000 limit on political action committees.

The center argues that the law restricts freedom of speech and because the caps do not apply to political parties, it does not offer all groups equal protection under the law. “Liberty PAC is limited in the amount of money that they can give to a candidate in a general election. So is everybody else, except for political parties. Political parties can give as much money as they wan,t and all we want in politics is a level playing field,” said Patrick Hughes, president of the Liberty Justice Center. “Under this law, we limit some people’s speech while we let the parties speak as much as they want. And that’s not fair.”

The group asked for an injunction to block implementation of the caps, but it was denied by a federal judge earlier this month. This week, a panel of judges shot down the center’s appeal. Hughes said that the standards for the type of injunction the group was seeking are high, and the group was unable to meet them. However, he said the center plans to continue pursuing the case. “What we’re looking to now is just ensuring that people here in Illinois get to exercise their constitutional rights, have freedom of speech and get ... equal protection,” he said. “We’re disappointed. But we’re going to continue to fight on.”

David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said that the caps are needed to prevention corruption, such as the pay-to-play schemes that landed Blagojevich in a federal prison. “The caps are designed to solve a particular problem, what we might think of as the Blagojevich problem.” He said that Blagojevich handed out benefits, such as government jobs or favorable regulatory rulings, for large contributions. “Most of those donors got something tangible within days or weeks of making [those] contribution[s].” Morrison noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed for contribution limits when there is a compelling risk of corruption.

Hughes said that the prevention of corruption is a pretext and that the caps instead serve to strengthen party leaders because parties are not subject to limits. Good-government groups, such as the ICPR, advocated for caps on party contributions when the law was being debated in the legislature. Even though they did not win out on the issue, Morrison said it is no reason to toss out the entire law. He said the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and ensuing state court rulings that allow political action committees to raise and spend unlimited funds if they do not communicate with campaigns have changed the playing field. He said the new law is being tested this year, during the first election cycle that it has been in place, and lawmakers should consider making tweaks afterward. “It’s not as airtight as it used to be. What I think we need to do is see how the system works.”

But the Liberty Justice Center hopes that the caps will not survive to the next campaign season. “Our hope and plan is that this will be resolved long before the next election in 2014.”

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