Standing in the way
5:53 PM CDT, March 15, 2011
Before the November election, the coalition of reform groups called CHANGE Illinois! sent a questionnaire to candidates for the Illinois General Assembly. The very first question concerned whether the state's campaign finance limits should be expanded to include contributions from party leaders.
Not a single candidate for state Senate answered "No."
Seven candidates, most of them running unopposed, ducked the question. In contested races, though, the candidates knew what voters wanted to hear: Cap those contributions. Thirteen of 15 contested seats were won by candidates who are on record as favoring that reform.
Will they get a chance to vote on it?
Not unless Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, gets out of the way. Cullerton and Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, were two-thirds of the three-person subcommittee that blocked a bill last year. Their two votes were all it took to kill the measure.
On Wednesday, the same subcommittee will consider an identical bill, sponsored again by Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago. It would limit contributions from party leaders to $175,000 per candidate in Senate races and $125,000 in the House.
Over in the House, it's much the same story. Almost everyone who had cause to worry at election time waved the flag for campaign caps for party leaders. But House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, is not a fan of limiting his own clout. Last year, the House version of the bill spent the legislative session stuck in his Rules Committee. This year's bill, sponsored by Rep. Karen May, D-Highland Park, is up against the same wall.
The campaign caps, which took effect Jan. 1, were passed in a post-Blagojevich ethical fervor that now feels oh-so-2009. Contributions to candidates are limited to $5,000 per individual donor, $10,000 per business and $50,000 per political action committee. But legislative leaders and political parties can give their candidates all they want, except in the primary.
The reformers who campaigned for caps regarded that as a worthy compromise, since Illinois previously had no limits whatsoever on campaign spending. They vowed to come back and finish the job. But party leaders have shut down the conversation, to nobody's surprise. The law now limits everyone's influence but theirs.
Last week, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform reported that legislative leaders and parties spent $15.4 million battling over 19 hotly contested seats — 12 House and seven Senate — before the November election. Some of those candidates got 70 to 90 percent of their campaign money from party leaders.
If you think that's lopsided — that it leaves your legislators more indebted to bosses than to you — remember that the caps on contributions from other sources weren't yet in effect. Party leaders will have an even bigger advantage in the next election cycle, unless the law is fixed.
Not surprisingly, those party leaders like the law the way it is. Voters don't, and Madigan and Cullerton know it. That's why they resort to heavy-handed tactics to bury the bills. A floor vote would require lawmakers to show whom they work for — the voters or their caucus. Given the chance, we think they'd vote to expand the caps. Let's find out.
Madigan, Cullerton: Give the democratic process its due. Step aside and let your members vote.
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