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More secrecy and clout? No, stop it now
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 5/22/2009 12:01 AM

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While your elected state officials were busy this week increasing several taxes and fees and expanding gambling, there were other moves under way that need your attention and your action.

In the Senate, some Democrats unveiled a plan to allow legislators to claim they have capped campaign donations, when in reality, the plan still allows their leaders to preserve their power and their ability to control their candidates.

House and Senate officials also let word get out they had abandoned months of effort at bettering government transparency. They have plans to gut the Freedom of Information Act that helps you understand what your elected officials are up to so you can hold them accountable. These are their ideas for cleansing corruption? They are far from ours; they ought to be far from yours.

State Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat whose district includes parts of Rosemont and Bensenville, has been negotiating campaign contribution limit legislation with the Illinois Reform Commission and CHANGE Illinois, a coalition of civic, business and labor groups.

But the plan Harmon revealed this week allows for dramatically higher donations to candidates.

The anti-corruption groups support donation limits per election cycle of $2,400 from individuals. That means that in a four-year Senate term, someone could give a Senate candidate a total of $4,800 for the primary and general elections. But the Senate plan just unveiled would allow for $10,000 donations every calendar year, or a total of $40,000 to a candidate in a four-year term.

Even more alarming, Harmon's plan, so far, has no limit whatsoever on the contributions legislative leaders can make to candidates. That key lack of a limit on leadership contributions makes the Senate plan to cap campaign contributions practically meaningless.

Consider this. One of the hottest local statehouse races last fall was between veteran Elk Grove Village Trustee Christine Prochno, a Republican, and Arlington Heights businessman Mark Walker, a Democrat. (Walker won.) In the heat of the campaign, Walker benefited from more than $207,000 in donations from the Democratic Party of Illinois, a fund controlled by House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. Prochno got more than $156,000 from the House Republican Organization, a fund controlled by House GOP Leader Tom Cross of Oswego. Madigan, in effect, gave Walker about 69 percent of his funding, while Cross gave Prochno 54 percent of her in-kind donations in the heated home stretch.

None of that would have to change in the plan Harmon unveiled. We understand legislative leaders should have electoral influence, but their contributions must be capped too. Jim Bray, a spokesman for CHANGE Illinois, said the higher calendar-year limits with no restrictions on leadership donations is like allowing cars to go 225 mph on the Kennedy and calling it a speed limit. We couldn't say it any better than that.

At the same time, efforts to improve our now-lame Freedom of Information Act are in jeopardy. There had been a plan supported by many to strengthen penalties on those who violate the law and give the attorney general power to enforce it. Now, House and Senate leaders are talking about dropping those. Their new version would shield address information on arrestees and public employees. Further, it also would add broad exemptions that would give governments greater cover to operate in secret and to keep settlements private that involve your tax dollars.

If you think FOIA doesn't affect you, you're wrong. It's conceivable with this latest plan, none of us would have any way to determine whether a Jim Smith, accused of rape, is the same Jim Smith who holds a municipal post, or the same Jim Smith who is our neighbor. We'd have no way of judging whether a Todd Stroger-guided Cook County lawsuit settlement was a fair deal.

These two moves don't do anything to cleanse corruption. They increase the clout of those in control and allow more chances for them to operate in shadows. There are only nine days left in the legislative session. We call on every Illinoisan reading this to call the legislative leaders and their legislators and tell them these ideas simply cannot become law.