Strenghening the Pay-to-Play Ban

One of the biggest legislative actions of 2008 was the enactment, over Rod Blagjevich's veto, of the ban on campaign donations from state contractors, better known as the pay-to-play bill. The measure was a direct response to widespread charges that Rod Blagojevich had shaken down companies for campaign donations before they'd even be considered for state business.

Somewhat famously, the bill was the spark that led to the "crime spree" which culminated in Blagojevich's arrest on December 9, 2008. As he said on one taped phone call, the bill meant he wouldn't be able to "bully" campaign donations after the end of the year.

Shortly before he was arrested, though, the US Department of Transportation wrote a letter outlining objections to the new law. US DoT claimed that the law would shrink the pool of companies eligible to bid on federal highway projects, and that the smaller pool would increase the cost of those projects. US DoT was writing to demand an exemption to the law.

US DoT did the same thing in New Jersey (also a state with a fearsome reputation for corruption) when New Jersey barred contributors from bidding on contracts. Illinois' law was different, though. Our bill didn't ban anyone from bidding; it did the opposite, banning bidders from contributing in the future. Perhaps this nuance was lost on the US DoT analysts, but they were clear that the new law jeopardized Illinois' eligibility for federal construction funds.

After Blagojevich's arrest, the General Assembly approved an exemption to the Pay-to-Play bill for projects funded by federal highway dollars. But not without some grumbling on all sides. Now, at the prompting of US Rep. Mike Quigley, the US House has approved a change to federal law to allow US highway dollars to flow to states that have pay-to-play bans similar to our original, stronger law. Should the US Senate concur, and the president sign the measure (remember, it was a phone call from then-candidate Obama that prompted the veto override vote in the first place), Illinois could go back to the original stronger pay-to-play ban and eliminate the loophole.

We applaud the US House for recognizing that pay-to-play bans can save money. We encourage the US Senate to follow suit. And we await the day when Illinois can again apply the pay-to-play ban to highway projects.