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Ins and outs of campaign reform
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/29/2009 3:13 PM

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SPRINGFIELD - Unions, businesses and other special interests would be banned from spending money on behalf of candidates under a campaign finance law advancing toward the governor's desk, a move that substantially restricts outside influence on politics but not without consequences.

Every campaign season, scores of business and labor workers get paid to staff Republican and Democratic campaigns across the state, a practice that would be prohibited effective Jan. 1, 2011 under the reforms.

But the practical impact could be that campaigns become more reliant on the political leaders in each party to provide the paid foot soldiers and staffers that once came from elsewhere. Neither the Republican nor Democratic party organizations would face similar prohibitions.

Gov. Pat Quinn endorsed the changes over the objections of his hand-picked reform commission. Questions swirled as to why he split from that commission and whether he'd sold out the reformers in exchange for a provision that could help his own election bid.

The campaign finance plan specifically bars the Democratic Party of Illinois from endorsing or supporting candidates in the upcoming Democratic primary. The party chairman is Michael Madigan, the speaker of the Illinois House and father of Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Lisa Madigan is considering running for governor.

"That was a matter of agreement between the governor and I," Speaker Madigan said Friday as the plan cleared a House committee, setting up a final vote in the House later today.

Quinn said there were no nefarious motivations.

"I've been for campaign finance limits for a long, long time," Quinn told reporters who pressed the issue. He described the provision as empowering people who'd previously been at the mercy of the "machine."

Even the leading reformers angered by Quinn's capitulation doubted the sinister sellout scenario.

For starters, Lisa Madigan doesn't need the financial help of the party. The most recent campaign finance reports show her with nearly $3.5 million available. Quinn, on the other hand, had less than $83,000 and owed $31,000 in campaign debt.

Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, also said no one's going to think Mike Madigan doesn't support his daughter just because the Democratic Party isn't officially endorsing her prospective campaign.

"That seemed to me a fairly meaningless gesture," Canary said.

She did, however, say Quinn settled "for very little" in choosing to go with lawmakers' reform efforts rather than the package his commission assembled under the guidance of former federal prosecutor Pat Collins.

That commission wanted financial donations limited to half of the $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from corporations and unions that lawmakers approved. Lawmakers also capped at $90,000 the amount that can be transferred between political committees and candidates and restricted the number of committees lawmakers can have.

The new restrictions don't mean massive amounts of money can't be spent in campaigns.

For instance, the Republican Party could transfer $90,000 to a Republican state House candidate's campaign fund. The Republican Party could also transfer another $90,000 to the county Republican political fund in that's candidate's area. That county fund could then send the $90,000 onto the candidate.

While the transfers between committees are limited to $90,000 a year, there are no limits on how many committees can transfer $90,000 to a candidate.

Critics said this could be a loophole ripe for abuse while supporters note that under the existing system there are no limits in any of these areas.

Madigan said the experience with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his fundraising practices led him to support such limits. Last year, lawmakers banned contributions from businesses with state contracts and it was that prohibition's start date that Blagojevich was allegedly caught on federal wire taps racing to beat by shaking down contractors, a children's hospital and a horse racing official. The tape of his conversation with the track figure was played during him impeachment trial.

Nearly all the restrictions take effect starting in 2011. Madigan said doing otherwise would give incumbents - most of who are sitting on healthy campaign war chests - an unfair advantage as newcomers and challengers would start under the restrictions. As written, next year's elections would be the last under the state's wide-open finance system.

Republicans, however, joined reformers in saying more should be done. In the Senate, nearly all Republicans voted against the plan. In the House committee, the GOP members all voted "present."

"Thanks for the step, some of us disagree on how big it is," said state Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr., a Mundelein Republican, of the move toward reform.

Under the terms of the proposal, lawmakers also would gain access to a "constituent services committee" that would allow them to raise money to use in their local government offices rather than campaigns. Currently many supplement their taxpayer-funded local offices with political money in order to hire staff, pay rent and cover other expenses. The new law would set up separate committees for that money and prohibit its use in campaigns.

State Rep. Mike Tryon, a Crystal Lake Republican, said the option could prove useful given the state's budget situation.

"They just shut the phone off in my office for nonpayment," Tryon said.

There's also a provision designed to protect candidates running against wealthy individuals willing to spend lavishly on their own campaigns. If a candidate for statewide office or the candidate's immediate family spends or loans more than $250,000 on the campaign, then the other candidates are freed from the new restrictions.

There's a similar exemption once a candidate for any other state office spends $100,000 of his or her own money.

Those self-financers must also report their contributions and ability to self-finance to the Illinois State Board Elections. If candidates fail to do so, they cannot use the money and the state could claim it for use in the state budget.