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IL’s “baby step” towards campaign reform

It’s a step in the right direction, but with many, many miles to go. The new reforms in Illinois address contribution limits, but the limits are too high to be genuinely effective.

December 11, 2009

A Step in the Right Direction, Illinois, But Many Miles to Go…

Politics is the art of the possible, and the Illinois legislature was only willing to go so far in reforming its political culture. A year to the day after then-Governor Rod Blagojevich’s arrest on federal corruption charges, Governor Quinn signed into law Illinois’ first campaign contribution limits on December 9, 2009. It’s a start, but there is much to be improved.

Gov. Blagojevich was impeached after revelations that he allegedly tried to sell the appointment of Obama’s vacant Senate seat. He was also caught on federal wiretaps apparently shaking down businessmen for campaign contributions. Part of what made the Blagojevich scandal pop were huge dollars at issue as Illinois was one of a handful of states that lacked contribution limits; so the state was fertile ground for fundamental revamping. If any state needed to hit the “restart” button, it was Illinois.

The new Illinois contribution limits are a start, but even so, but they could be lowered significantly. Starting in 2011, individual donors are limited to giving $5,000 each for the primary and general elections. Corporations and unions are limited to $10,000 per election, and political action committees cannot donate more than $50,000 per election. As the Brennan Center’s research shows, low contribution limits ($500/person/house candidate) have positive democratic effects, such as increased electoral competition. Illinois’ contribution limits are likely to be too high to have these positive effects.

Unfortunately, on top of the high contribution limits, the new “reform” law came with loopholes big enough to accommodate a Mack truck. Legislative leaders are excused from these new limits, and will be able to guide unlimited funds to favorite legislators in contested races.  

The new law does improve aspects of campaign finance in Illinois, like providing greater transparency for Illinoisian voters to see who is paying for elections, and who has flouted the law. But going forward, Illinois still has a lot of work to do to restore its good name after two governors in a row have ended up indicted for corruption. For example, Illinois could benefit from offering public financing to candidates so that they have an alternative to the dialing-for-dollars, “Blagojevich model” of privately-funded elections.