House OKs caps on political donations

 
 
Updated 10/30/2009 12:23 AM

SPRINGFIELD - Leading government reform groups dropped their opposition and Thursday signed onto a campaign finance deal put together in closed-door meetings with Democrats even as Republicans cried foul.

The proposal includes the first limits on campaign giving in the state's checkered political history. Individuals, businesses, unions and, in primaries only, political leaders and parties will face restrictions in their ability to spread campaign cash to candidates.

 

Other provisions include more timely disclosure of contributions and random auditing of political financing by state election officials.

The proposal cleared the Illinois House 66-49 late Thursday and likely faces a Senate vote today, the final day of lawmakers' fall session.

The decision by the reform group Change Illinois! to sign onto the deal after criticizing it for weeks caught many by surprise, especially Republicans. Up until Thursday, GOP members and the reform coalition wanted strict limits on how much legislative leaders and the political parties could spend on candidates in the expensive fall elections.

Instead, the plan limits such spending only in the primary.

Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Coalition for Political Reform, rationalized the deal as an important step forward and they'd fight for more another day.

"At the end of the day I don't think it was ever about getting a perfect bill," Canary told reporters at the Capitol.

Reformers feared if they continued a hard-line approach nothing would happen and they'd get blamed for killing off the numerous agreed-upon reforms.

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"There was a sense that they wanted to gain the improvements - and make sure they left the building with something," Canary said of why members of the Change Illinois! group compromised.

State Rep. Suzie Bassi, a Palatine Republican, was outraged at the change of events.

"Change Illinois! was either worn down or bought out," she said on the House floor, calling the compromise, "at the very least, unfortunate."

As proposed, individual contributions to candidates would be capped at $5,000 per election. Businesses and unions can donate up to $10,000, and political committees can give up to $50,000 per election.

For political parties and committees controlled by legislative leaders, there would be restrictions only in the primary. Donations to candidates for statewide office like governor would be limited to $200,000. Senate primaries would be capped at $125,000 and House races limited to $75,000.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The limits would be in the aggregate, meaning if the Democratic Party gave $200,000 to a candidate for governor in the primary, the House Democrats campaign committee wouldn't be able to give anything.

However, there would be no restrictions on such giving in the fall general election.

The reform groups initially contended those fall races, not the primaries, were the high-priced contests that needed to be curtailed.

In explaining the deal, they said the limits would encourage more people to challenge incumbents by leveling the playing field.

The Change Illinois! group pointed out that in the 2008 election season there were 80 potential primaries in the state Senate, but only eight were contested. In the House, the 236 potential primaries produced just 23.

Encouraging more primary competition is important, the reformers said, because many of these races produce no challenger in the fall and the primary election is the election. Of the 40 Senate seats on the 2008 ballot, 21 had no general election challenger.

But the primary contests are by no means the big money races.

A Daily Herald analysis of last year's primary spending reveals Republican officials didn't support any primary candidates while Democrat leaders in the state's House and Senate backed a handful of incumbents fending off strong challengers. The Democratic leaders spent nearly $500,000 defending 13 incumbents. Only one lost. Twelve of the 13 did not face a Republican challenger in the general election

The $500,000 spent by party leaders in last year's primaries is dwarfed by the millions of dollars spent in the general election. In 10 hotly contested suburban races last year alone, more than $5 million was spent by party leaders, an analysis of campaign finance records shows.

Meanwhile, the limits discussed in the pending legislation would have cut back party pull in only one of the races that leaders chose to meddle with.

To protect incumbent state Sen. Iris Martinez of Chicago, Democratic Senate leaders chipped in $280,000. The proposed limits would reduce that to $125,000.

In each of House Speaker Michael Madigan's Democratic House primaries, he never spent more than about $35,000 - less than half of the proposed limit of $75,000.

• Daily Herald staff writer Joseph Ryan contributed to this report.

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