ICPR Testimony to the Senate Executive Committee on SB 3722
ICPR testified before the Senate Executive Committee against aspects of SB 3722; our statement is below.
Statement of David Morrison
Illinois Campaign for Political Reform
To the Senate Executive Committee
On SB 3722
March 30, 2012
Good evening Mr. Chairman, Mr. President, and members of the Senate Executive Committee. My name is David Morrison and I am the Deputy Director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Illinois was one of the last states to address the problems inherent in unfettered campaign finance laws. Despite a string of scandals of corruption involving political donations -- from Chicago City Clerk Miriam Santos to Gov. George Ryan -- for decades Illinois was one of the few states that allowed private interests to give as much as they wanted to any candidate willing to accept it. In the wake of the Rod Blagojevich impeachment, triggered in part by his routine practice of demanding five- and six-figure contributions to his campaign fund in exchange for state jobs, board appointments and even bill signings, ICPR was proud to work with many of members of this committee in 2009 to craft a limits system that we believed would reduce the likelihood of further abuses of the campaign system.
As in any negotiated process, the final bill was not anyone’s ideal, but included provisions acceptable to most and necessary to some. At the center of the bill was a system of contribution limits designed to inhibit the ability of public officials to demand, and private interests to offer, outsized contributions in order to seal illicit deals. This system, modeled on the practices and experiences of elections in other states and at the federal level but adapted to fit Illinois’ unique political environment, has been in effect for less than a year and a half. The limits took effect in the middle of the last round of municipal elections; we have had one General Primary election under limits, but not a General Election.
One of the elements in the 2009 bill was that when candidates spent large amounts of their own funds in a race, contribution limits would no longer apply to other candidates in that race. Supreme Court rulings back to Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 have concluded that there is no risk of corruption from self-funding, and so there is no justification to limit self-funding. The provisions allowed wealthy individuals to determine that the fight against corruption was not important in that race; that contributions that would risk corruption in other races would be legal in their race, solely because the self-funder was involved. ICPR accepted that component of the bill because the overall bill remained worth supporting, and the number of candidates capable of putting large amounts of their own money into a race was expected to be fairly small. Candidates have rarely self-funded in the past, and in the three elections since the law took effect, it has not happened often.
SB 3722 as amended would expand that provision to allow any group or individual that spends large amounts of money in a race, without coordinating with a candidate, to also determine that contribution limits should not be in effect.
Our concern is that this represents a great expansion in the group of people with power to remove limits. Limits now are removed only when a wealthy person decides both to run for office and to use his or her own money for the campaign. But under this bill, any group or person, whether running for office, or indeed, even if they live thousands of miles from Illinois and are ineligible to run for office, can determine that limits should not apply in that race. They will decide that the state’s efforts to combat corruption should, in effect, be repealed in that contest for the duration of the race.
Indeed, in the 2010 gubernatorial elections, the Democratic Governors’ Association and the Republican Governors’ Association each spent well over $250,000 to support their party’s nominee. Under the rules in effect at that time, such giving was called either direct or in-kind contributions. But under current law, these would have to be independent expenditures, and under this bill would trigger the removal of limits in the race for governor. Likewise, recent races for Appellate and Supreme Court, for Mayor of Chicago, and for Cook County Board President, have all seen giving by donors that would trigger the removal of limits in those contests.
The effect here is to remove contribution limits not because there is no longer a risk of corruption, and not because the culture of politics has improved, but only because a private interest wants to put large resources into that race. ICPR believes this approach is wrong headed. But we are particularly concerned because of Illinois’ weak rules regarding coordination, which are central to defining what about an “independent expenditure” committee is truly “independent” of a candidate. Just as federal candidates for president now have their own SuperPACs devoted to their campaigns, funded by their supporters, founded by their former aides, and too-often sharing consultants and advisors.
This is precisely the sort of question that the Campaign Finance Reform Task Force is well suited for, and it is good that this bill directs the Task Force to study the issue. But this bill also puts these provisions into statute, permanently and with no sunset as is found in other parts of the SB 3722. It would be better to have the Task Force study this before enacting procisions; barring that, it would be better to sunset these provisions after the Task Force reports back, so that the inertia of what’s already on the books does not mean that hasty decisions become permanent rules. In its current form, these rules present a greater risk of harm than of good, and for that reason we are opposed.