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Ill. leaders skeptical of contribution limits
Associated Press
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Published: 3/17/2009 12:02 AM

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SPRINGFIELD -- Reform groups are trying to translate voter disgust over government corruption into limiting the size of campaign contributions, a subject many Illinois politicians have long considered taboo.

Top legislative leaders made it clear Monday that they're not convinced.

Reform advocates, including Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, laid the problems before a joint committee charged with overhauling the state's ethics laws.

"The system we have is obviously not working," she said. "How many more indictments, wire taps, grand juries and arrests must the voters be expected to endure before we are willing to try something new?"

Earlier in the day, she and other good-government advocates announced a new push to build public support for capping campaign donations. They have set up a toll-free hot line that people can call to be connected to their lawmakers and speak out in favor of caps.

The joint House-Senate committee was formed after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was removed from office for misconduct and allegations that he tried to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate. The panel is looking for ways to clean up Illinois politics and repair the state's image.

Witnesses told lawmakers the best move would be to limit the amount of money people can give to a politician. There is no limit in Illinois on the amount an individual, corporation or political action committee may donate to candidates.

But Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, both Chicago Democrats, were skeptical that limits would solve the state's ethical mess.

They cited the prospect of running against an independently wealthy opponent who could afford to mount an expensive campaign without having to raise money. A candidate without that kind of wealth shouldn't face the handicap of raising money one small check at a time, they said.

"If we are to have limits, they should be not so low that you're going to spend all your time doing that," Cullerton said.

He also said it's unfair to bar political parties and legislative leaders from helping their candidates against rich opponents.

Other lawmakers argued that limiting contributions would invite interest groups to get around the restriction by "bundling" money -- that is, handing over a stack of smaller checks from individuals instead of one big check from the organization.

Advocates of campaign limits suggest capping contributions to each candidate at $2,400 per election, the same limit that will apply to upcoming federal elections.

Reform groups say the limit should apply to regular citizens and legislative leaders. Leaders have been known to supply as much as 80 percent of a candidate's campaign in a targeted race, Canary said.

The new "CHANGE Illinois" coalition has set up a toll-free number. Callers will be connected to their local legislators so they can talk about cleaning up state government.