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Thursday, May 31, 2012 07:28 am

More money, more problems

Lifting campaign contribution limits if SuperPACs spend big

Illinois lawmakers are reacting to a controversial ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court with a bill that could take Illinois back to the days of unlimited campaign contributions.
The bill’s sponsor says it’s necessary to counter independent groups that can already spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns. Opponents say it will provide fertile ground for corruption.

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, sponsors a bill allowing candidates for state office to accept unlimited campaign contributions if an independent group spends above a certain threshold in a given race.

Campaign contributions are often seen by reformers as a means for individuals or groups to influence politicians.

“What we’ve crafted is legislation that says if there is an egregious example of heavy-duty fundraising (by an independent group), then the contribution caps are off for all the candidates in that contest,” Currie said in an interview. “I don’t think it makes sense to say that when you’re looking at really big money, that legislators or hopefuls should have to run with one arm tied behind their back.”

The bill addresses the advent of SuperPACs – political action committees meant to operate independently of candidates, but which can spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates. The term was coined after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which held that independent campaign expenditures are protected political speech under the First Amendment, and so cannot be restricted with campaign contribution limits. That case set a precedent used by the Illinois Supreme Court in its March 2012 decision in Personal PAC v. Illinois State Board of Elections, which came to a similar conclusion as Citizens United.

Currie’s bill seeks to deal with independent expenditures – campaign ads or other costs on behalf of a candidate paid for by an independent group with no input or collaboration from the candidate. If a political committee independently spends more than $250,000 in a race for a statewide office like governor, or more than $100,000 in a state office like senator or representative, then the candidates in those races could accept unlimited campaign contributions.

Those contributions are currently limited to $5,000 from an individual, $10,000 from a corporation, labor organization or association, and $50,000 from a political committee.  

 David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, testified May 16 before a House legislative committee that Currie’s bill would allow for unlimited money in Illinois politics, which Morrison called “deeply discouraging.”

“It would build a bypass within the limits system and recreate a process where corruption could flourish,” Morrison said, referring to conditions that allowed former governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich to dole out political influence in return for campaign contributions.

Currently, contribution limits for all candidates in a race may be exceeded if a candidate or candidate’s family gives more than $100,000 to the candidate’s own campaign in a district race or $250,000 in a statewide race.

Morrison said the bill could also harm the campaigns of candidates who find themselves facing a well-funded SuperPAC.

“A group determined to spend a large amount of money in a race could time its expenditures to the final days and weeks of a campaign, leaving other candidates with very little time to raise money without limits to respond in kind,” Morrison said.

Currie said that criticisms from Morrison’s group are “completely wrong.”

“They would prefer a different political landscape, as would I,” Currie said. “I too bemoan the Citizens United decision. I am very unhappy at the direction the courts have taken us with respect to controls on campaign funding. The reform groups are unhappy at the idea of a lot of money in politics. They think that money tends to taint, that it tends to represent corruption. Without giving people the opportunity to fight back, it seems to me that we’d be just turning the whole electoral process over to the monied interests. I’m not prepared to do that.”

Still, Morrison says there are other ways to deal with the new campaign finance landscape that don’t involve unlimited money. Among other ideas, Morrison suggests that PACs that are dedicated to a single candidate, share resources with a candidate’s campaign, or are staffed by individuals connected to a candidate should be required to report expenditures on behalf of that candidate and count expenditures toward the candidate’s campaign expenses.

“There are ways to deal with independent expenditure committees that preserve the integrity of the contribution limits system,” Morrison said, urging lawmakers to reject laws that “would make it far too easy for people seeking to corrupt our electoral system to succeed.”

The bill currently awaits a vote on the House floor and would require Senate approval vote before going to the governor for a final signature to become law.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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