House committee blows giant loophole through campaign finance reform bill

House committee blows giant loophole through campaign finance reform bill
Creative Commons photo by BORMAN818

A state bill, once ostensibly aimed at adding more transparency to campaign finance rules and political action committees, now has language in it that could allow limitless amounts of money to be pumped into statewide and local elections.

On Tuesday, The Chicago Reporter reported that SB3722 was headed to a House committee where lawmakers were planning to tweak its confusing language and, perhaps, add some other changes.

They acted heavily on the latter item.

Basically, before Wednesday, the bill would have required that your identity be disclosed if, say, as a union-member, you were contributing to a PAC through your union, and your individual contribution exceeded more than $500 per reporting quarter.

Sounds quasi-reformist, right?

Well, campaign finance reform activists are now accusing lawmakers of inserting a giant loophole in the legislation. A House amendment that passed Wednesday inserts language in the bill that would completely do away with caps on campaign contributions once certain thresholds are hit.

So, for statewide races, if a PAC spends $250,000 on a candidate, or his or her campaign, there are no longer any caps on contributions from anyone, for anyone in that race. The threshold is $100,000 for local races.

The amendment is a sucker-punch to campaign finance reform activists. Some are shocked that such a glaring loophole would appear in a bill that was originally touted as a reform measure.

Rey López-Calderón, executive director of the Chicago-based political reform group Common Cause, called the current bill "disgusting".

"It's an evisceration of the original bill," López-Calderón said.

"This allows rich people and billionaires to game the system. There are so many ways you can get around it [campaign spending laws] now," he added. "We're trying to take the money out of politics."

Here's a very basic, hypothetical situation people like López-Calderón worry about. A PAC could be set up by a wealthy guy to benefit his gubernatorial-candidate brother, and once that PAC spends $250,000 to benefit that candidate's campaign, it opens up the floodgates.

Millions could be spent on that candidate, which is problematic, if for no other reason than the candidate with the wealthy brother might be up against a candidate who doesn't have nearly that kind of fundraising prowess.

Not according to 25th District state Rep. Barbara Flynn-Currie, who said the bill "will level the playing field".

It's not exactly clear how removing limits on campaign contributions for candidates who don't raise a lot of money in the first place somehow "level[s] the playing field",  if it allows their opponents to raise limitless amounts of money.

The assistant majority leader, a South Side Democrat, is the bill's House sponsor and is largely responsible for advancing the bill in its current form.

Flynn-Currie said the amendment is also an attempt to bring state law into line with the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. That decision removed limits on campaign contributions from corporations, unions and PACs, at the federal level, so long as there is no coordination with the candidate.

But David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said PACs and campaigns, at all levels, are often connected at the hip.

He told the House committee that passed the amendment the following, in a prepared statement, yesterday:

"Candidates have appeared at fundraising events for 'their' independent expenditure committees. Groups that claim to be independent of candidates have shared media consultants with those same candidates. Donors have earmarked contributions to committees that swear they are independent of candidates, to be spent on behalf of those exact same candidates. The notion that there is no risk of corruption from these committees' activities...defies logic."

López-Calderón called Flynn-Currie's push to conform the legislation to the Citizens United ruling a "knee-jerk reaction" to federal and state court rulings that have been "whittling away at campaign finance reform laws".

This year, the Illinois Supreme Court also ruled that state lawmakers cannot limit how much PACs can collect, cumulatively.

If it becomes law, SB3722 would, in effect, do away with current limits on single contributions to PACs, which are capped at $10,000 for individuals, $20,000 for companies, and $50,000 for other PACs.

The bill would also still require that donors giving through conduits be identified to the Illinois State Board of Elections, if they give more than $500 per quarter.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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