In the week leading up to his removal from office, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich took to the national airwaves and heralded his various accomplishments, from broadening health coverage and early education to limiting tax increases. Ironically, his lasting political legacy might ...
In the week leading up to his removal from office, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich took to the national airwaves and heralded his various accomplishments, from broadening health coverage and early education to limiting tax increases. Ironically, his lasting political legacy might be tied to an issue he all but ignored while in office: campaign finance reform.
For years, activists have called on state leaders to tighten Illinois' notoriously loose campaign finance and ethics laws. Piecemeal solutions haven't ridded out corruption, as evidenced by the scandals embroiling the last two governors. Now, public anger is simmering and, as Pat Quinn takes the reins of government, a group of state lawmakers are promising to unveil measures aimed at reining in the influence of money in state politics. Thanks to Illinois' latest gubernatorial arrest -- the fourth in the last half-century -- 2009 just might be a year of reform in the Land of Lincoln.
Blagojevich’s behavior perfectly embodies the rotten political culture enabled by Illinois’ lenient ethics apparatus. A 2007 study by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice described the state’s campaign finance laws as the weakest in the Midwest. Illinois law places no caps on campaign contributions -- one of only six states nationwide not to do so. Hamstrung by partisan gridlock, the State Board of Elections rarely enforces laws already on the books. Illinois is also the only state in the region not to offer public financing of any kind.
The system does feature disclosure laws intended to discourage politicians and special interest groups from engaging in shaky ethical maneuvers. But even those regulations are “so riddled with loopholes,” the Brennan Center noted, “that tens of thousands of dollars can move from lobbyists to politicians without attracting any public notice.”
The real problem is that politicians have lacked the will or incentive to transform the state’s ethics guidelines. After all, it’s easier to raise high volumes of contributions once in office and it goes without saying that fundraising advantages often translate into electoral victories. The National Institute on Money in State Politics found that 84 percent of statehouse candidates who raised more funds than their opponents won elections in 2006.
“We’ve seen this [corruption] in the past,” says Brian Imus, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, “and it’s in part because state lawmakers -- both Democrats and Republicans -- have been enablers for decades.”
Lawmakers have slowly supplemented the state’s lax ethics statutes in recent years. Following Gov. George Ryan’s tumultuous tenure, which was marred in corruption and eventually led to his 2006 federal conviction, the Illinois Senate passed the 2003 Ethics Act. The bill, initially vetoed by Gov. Blagojevich, called for a slew of internal changes designed to expose corrupt behavior, establishing the Executive and Legislative Ethics Commissions, the Inspector General's office, and routine ethics trainings.
Just this past year, the General Assembly also approved a much-heralded "pay-to-play" bill, which prohibits supporters who have received or are seeking a state contract worth at least $50,000 from donating to the elected official responsible for signing the contract.
But significant loopholes dog this latest reform, which took effect on January 1. There is no provision that prohibits possible contractors from donating to political groups who can, in turn, funnel resources to those state officials. Nor are there any restrictions on contractor donations to state legislators, who also play a key role in the distribution of contracts. And earlier this month, the Senate voted to exclude lucrative road and bridge contractors from the ban after federal transportation officials threatened to withhold funding because they feared projects would become more expensive if the pool of bidders was restricted.
More generally, outside interest groups and individuals aren’t subject to any of the same restrictions. While Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) deputy director David Morrison calls the bill “a very good first step,” only in a state where expectations have been so diminished could reformers hail these marginal improvements as triumphs. “At the rate that we’re going with these incremental reforms,” adds Imus, “we’re going to go through a lot more scandals before we even catch up to the types of ethics and campaign finance laws that we even see at the federal level.”
A Renewed Appetite For Reform
Thankfully, momentum to bolster the state’s ethics laws is building and lawmakers are scurrying towards solutions. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls from legislators, both usual and unusual suspects, who want to get involved,” says Morrison. Imus anticipates that reformers will introduce a package of campaign finance proposals early in the 2009 session, many of which are repeat bills that failed to make headway in Springfield previously.
Rep. Harry Osterman (D-Chicago) has already promised to file a measure modeled after federal law that would cap individual donations at $2,300 and union, corporate, and interest group donations at $5,000. While supported by top state officials like Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the bill was re-referred to the House rules committee in the spring of 2007 and left for dead, lacking broad rank-and-file support.
The position taken by Illinois’ largest labor union on the issue of campaign finance is a further indication of the new appetite for reform. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is pushing to eliminate corporate and union contributions entirely and cap individual contributions at $1,000 -- a proposal more aggressive than even Osterman's bill.
SEIU Illinois State Council executive director Jerry Morrison acknowledges that their position appears counter-intuitive; after all, SEIU operates the state's largest political action committee. But he says the union would prefer to get out of the campaign finance arms race: "Unions will always have an advantage over the business community when it comes to organizing. But if it comes down to money, as big as we are, we’re going to lose out every time."
It's also worth pointing out that the strict limits proposed by SEIU would force the Democratic leadership to broaden its donor base, giving activists and working people greater influence. (Full disclosure: SEIU Illinois sponsors this website.)
Rep. John Fritchey’s House Bill 8 may resurface this session as well. This Chicago Democrat's measure would bolster the state’s lobbying system by giving the Secretary of State investigatory powers and the authority to enforce existing lobbyist disclosure laws. Assembly members might also try to beef up the offices of the Board of Elections and the Inspector General. Another idea involves revising the Statement of Economic Interest forms, which currently require so little information from state and local candidates that most answers aren’t of any value to voters.
Earlier this month, Quinn -- a longstanding ally of Illinois' good government organizations -- got in on the action by creating an independent ethics commission tasked with devising a “blueprint for reform.” While Quinn received praise in the media for tapping federal prosecutor Patrick Collins to chair the panel (Collins is best known for prosecuting former Gov. Ryan), it’s yet to be seen what recommendations could emerge that haven’t already been suggested.
The Clean Elections Path
When it comes to possible avenues for campaign finance reforms in Illinois, the elephant in the room is public financing. To date, only three states (Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut) employ so-called “Clean Money, Clean Election” systems, in which candidates accept a set amount of public funds or face significant administrative and legal restrictions on the private dollars they raise. It’s a bold step that incumbents rarely warm to, but it offers many benefits. In 2006, a third of Arizona’s 90 legislators participated in the program, including both gubernatorial candidates. Not only did the incumbent/challenger fundraising gap shrink considerably, but more candidates (14 percent in the House and 16 percent in the Senate) ran for office.
If a Clean Elections law ever has a shot at approval in the Prairie State, now might be the time. In Connecticut, the reform community and the public rallied around public financing after Republican Gov. John Rowland resigned facing corruption charges (for which he was later convicted). “Because they focused not on incremental steps but rather on one giant leap,” says Imus, “they were actually able to win.”
Sen. Dick Durbin could be a significant ally if legislators ultimately latch on to a Clean Elections solution. In 2007, the state’s senior U.S. senator proposed the Fair Elections Now Act, a public financing method for congressional races.
In the meantime, newly-elected Rep. Will Burns is moving the ball forward. The Chicago Democrat is currently working with Citizen Action/Illinois to craft legislation establishing a robust public financing system for executive and legislative campaigns. "I don't believe that Illinois is congenitally corrupt; I tend to take a more structural approach," says Burns. "It's clear that the way campaigns are financed is horribly wrong."
The reform community is guardedly optimistic that the Blagojevich scandal will provide the impetus for the General Assembly to pass a substantive slate of reforms. They certainly have the public’s support. A statewide poll released by ICPR earlier this month found that 58 percent of respondents viewed Gov. Blagojevich’s alleged behavior as “common among public officials” and 71 percent agreeed that public financing of political candidates would make a difference in helping state government work better. But longtime reformers know better than to take anything for granted. “We thought the pay-to-play bill was a slam dunk,” says David Morrison. “That ended up taking two years to get through.”
With Quinn now installed as governor of Illinois, there a few excuses for further delay. And given the public’s outrage, speed is critical. “If it gets to be May and voters walk away from it, then legislators will let things keep on going as they have been going,” warns Morrison. “But as long as voters are putting that pressure on public officials, they will have no choice but to represent their constituents.”