Springfield takes up campaign finance reform, injects confusion over PACs

Springfield takes up campaign finance reform, injects confusion over PACs
Creative Commons photo by Flikcr user jollyUK

Illinois lawmakers will get to work this week on a bill they say would add more transparency to state campaign finance laws that apply to Political Action Committees--and perhaps to clean up some of its convoluted language.

The House Elections and Campaign Finance Reform Committee will meet on Wednesday, May 16, to try to move SB3722 along in the lower chamber.

It has already cleared the Senate and has seen one reading in the House.

Right now, the bill would require the disclosure of the identities of donors giving "dues" to PACs through conduits if those "dues" exceed $1,500 each.

Basically this means that if, say, a company or a labor group wants to contribute to a PAC, and it collects money from employees' or members' checks or dues, the identities of the individual employees or members contributing have to be disclosed if someone is giving more than $1,500.

Good luck trying to understand this amendment to the Election Code the way it's written and the way it's introduced in the synopsis on the General Assembly's website--which reads that contributions to PACs "through dues, levies, or similar assessments paid by any natural person, corporation, labor organization, or association in a calendar year may not exceed $500."

Sounds like a cap, right? The Chicago Reporter and other legislative trackers thought so, too. But the bill's sponsor, 39th District state Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said that is "absolutely incorrect"-- in other words: The language on the website is botched.

"That's why we never use the synopsis," he said.

The language of the amendment is a bit clearer, and, in two separate conversations Harmon added a bit more light on what the bill aims to do.

"This is not a cap in any way, shape or form," he reiterated.

Instead, he called the $1,500 sum a "triggering for disclosure".

And that bit about the $500? That could actually change things.

Harmon said that there is an "agreement" in the works to set a quarterly disclosure threshold of $500 for individuals chipping into a pot of money that will end up in the hands of a PAC, replacing the $1,500 annual trigger.

But this, in effect, would mean that the annual disclosure threshold would increase to $2,000.

Confused yet?

Harmon said the quarterly provision is important because it would identify big donors more easily, as they're likely to give large amounts in lump sums that would require quarterly disclosure.

David Morrison, deputy director at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, offered the Reporter his understanding of the bill, although he too admitted finding its language confusing.

"The issue has been: how are these contributions being disclosed ... [and] the goal here is to make clear who is giving to political action committees," Morrison said.

Morrison notes the proposal is an "improvement" but worries the bill doesn't have enough teeth. He opined that the same disclosure rules that apply to direct contributions should be applied when giving through conduits.

For direct or individual contributions, a $150 donation must be itemized or "reported" to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

But there is currently no reporting requirement for individuals giving through conduits. Note, however, that an individual cannot give in excess of $10,000 and companies cannot fork over more than $20,000 either through a conduit or directly.

Morrison said that, under the proposed legislation, a donor who doesn't want his or her identity revealed could, essentially, give above the $150 reporting threshold governing direct contributions by using a conduit but remain in the shadows as long as he or she keeps the contribution through the conduit below whatever new threshold is eventually agreed upon--be it $1,500 per year or $500 per quarter.

The proposed law would apply to PACs regulated by the state board of elections--i.e. local, state, county and judicial races. At the federal level there's no limit when it comes to PACs and campaign contributions, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

But PACs do have to report a list of donors to the Federal Elections Commission.

"I understand there may be further changes [to SB3722] that may make it even stronger. I’m not sure entirely where it is going or what the entire language will look like," Morrison said.

"The way it's written now it doesn't make a whole lot of sense," he said.

Harmon said the bill enjoys broad support. It was introduced in the Senate in February and sailed through in just over a month.

Harmon is a member of the Illinois Campaign Finance Reform Task Force, an 11-member group tasked with exploring ways to implement campaign finance reform laws.

Harmon said the group noted that abuse could exist under the current conduit system, which is why he put forth the current bill.

"It seemed more prudent to act on it before there were more reports of people abusing it," he said.

Just how strong the bill will be remains to be seen.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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