Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., June 7, 8 or 9
The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) last week called on Gov. Pat Quinn to veto Senate Bill 3722, which passed the legislature May 31 and would create a loophole in the state’s campaign contribution limits law.
It ensures freedom of speech, technically. It mostly ensures freedom of speech for the rich, who’d be permitted to make unlimited contributions to political candidates.
“Gov. Quinn can and should veto this bill and protect the campaign finance system reforms he helped enact in 2009,” said Brian Gladstein, Executive Director of ICPR, a nonpartisan group that focuses on curtailing special interests’ influence on public policy, monitoring campaign donations, and exploring public-financing options.
“If he signs this bill, a lot of the work he did during that year will be for naught,” he continued.
The measure would lift limits on all contributions to candidates running in an election where spending by an independent committee (a SuperPAC) or individual reaches a threshold amount of $250,000 in a statewide race or $100,000 in all other campaigns.
“Citizens throughout Illinois were angered by Rod Blagojevich’s corrupt actions and the state’s history of corrupt agreements involving political contributions, and voters demanded reform of Illinois’ loose campaign finance regulations, which allowed unlimited contributions to all candidates,” Gladstein said. “This bill would be a step backwards and open the door to more corruption in the future.”
Democrats argued that they need limits lifted to make campaigns “fairer,” by leveling the playing field against SuperPACs. They’re concerned after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” decision and an Illinois court ruling in March that the federal case applies to Illinois, too, that they need to respond if a SuperPAC spends a lot of money against them.
Of course, the claim that it “levels the playing field” is ridiculous, like pitting a cat against a Caterpillar tractor. Corporations have the money – much more than organizations of mass constituencies, whether the National Rifle Association or organized labor.
It’s really no contest, according to progressive author Jim Hightower, who said, “Combined union assets represent only one-tenth of 1 percent of the assets held by our country’s four largest banks.”
Various opponents of the bill note that Illinois’ first campaign-finance reform restricting political action committees to $50,000 hasn’t had a chance to work yet.
“This is an inappropriate and hasty response to recent court decisions which have enabled the creation of so-called SuperPACs,” Gladstein said. “The proposal's adoption by the General Assembly comes less than two years after Illinois' corruption-fighting campaign contribution limits system went into effect. SB 3722 would allow a return to the environment that allowed corruption to flourish in our too-recent past, if the governor signs it.
“There are other ways to address the issue of independent expenditure committees, such as better and stronger definitions to what it means to be coordinating with a candidate,” Gladstein continued. “Such a bill passed recently in the State of Massachusetts.”
A SuperPAC can raise unlimited money from the wealthy or corporations for independent expenditures that supposedly are not coordinated with candidates, which polls show 62 percent of the public opposes. Since the Supreme Court decision, outside spending in Congressional races has tripled, with independent spending by PACs and similar groups quadrupling. For instance, GOP consultant Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS spent $70 million in 2010 and wants to raise 10 times that amount to defeat Democrats in 2012.
It’s ludicrous to criticize the practice but become part of it, but many have, from president Obama to Springfield lawmakers. Downstate legislators voted along party lines, with Democratic Sens. Dave Koehler and John Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Jehan Gordon voting yes, and Republican Sens. Bill Brady, Shane Cultra, Darin LaHood, and Republican Reps. Norine Hammond, Dave Leitch, Bill Mitchell, Don Moffitt, Keith Sommer, Jil Tracy and Mike Unes all voting no.
Meanwhile in Washington, Montana is appealing a similar state court ruling there to the Supreme Court, and a constitutional amendment has been introduced – by Democratic Congressman Tim Deutch of Florida.
“The framers of the Constitution never intended to give constitutional rights to corporations,” Deutch said. “We need to get the corporate money out of the political system and return democracy to the people.”
In Illinois, Democratic sponsors Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie and Sen. Don Harmon could amend the bill in a possible summer session, Gladstein said.
“Instead of rushing a loophole into the new law, Illinois should pause and study how best to fit SuperPACs into the campaign finance system,” he said. “We are calling on Gov. Quinn to stop the vandalization of the limits system. Give the Illinois Campaign Reform Task Force time to study responses in other states and recommend the next steps for Illinois before making hasty changes to Illinois’ corruption-fighting contribution limits system.”