In the wake of the Scott Lee Cohen scandal, State Rep. Will Burns has reintroduced his bill to create a statewide public-financing option for legislative, executive, and judicial races.
The Scott Lee Cohen debacle brought with it a number of of political lessons for Illinois Democrats. It exposed the need for a stronger party chairman and shed light on how ineffectively party leaders vet candidates. It also should remind Illinois citizens of the need to further strengthen campaign finance reform. After all, had Cohen not spent more than all of his Democratic challengers combined -- using his own money, no less -- there's little chance that he would have clinched the lieutenant governor's nomination last week.
As Cohen story subsides, State Rep. Will Burns (D-Chicago) is taking another crack at reining in the electoral influence of private interests and amplifying the voices of small donors. Today, he reintroduced the Lincoln Act (HB 5692), which would create a statewide public-financing option for legislative, executive, and judicial races. If the General Assembly were to approve the measure, Illinois would be the seventh state to create a framework for viable candidates to tap into public money. In doing so, the bill would help level the playing field for those candidates facing deep-pocketed competitors.
As regular readers may recall, the proposed system would work this way: First, candidates would have to demonstrate their viability by raising a certain amount of small contributions from Illinois residents. Once that threshold had been exceeded, they would qualify for a three-to-one public match on donations between $5 and $500.
The measure faces long odds. And the biggest challenge is finding money to pay for it. If all candidates running for an executive or legislative office opted for public financing during a gubernatorial election year, it would cost the state $100 million. But that's unlikely to happen. And some of the funding hurdle could be cleared by creating an income tax check-off or hiking lobbyist registration fees. Burns isn't committing to a revenue source just yet.
On the judicial side, the biggest obstacle has been House Speaker Mike Madigan; he has routinely allowed similar bills (SB 2144 and HB 2631) to languish. That shouldn't come as any huge surprise, considering that such reforms would curb the power of statehouse leaders to determine who rises to the top in legislative contests.
That said, supporters of the bill potentially have an additional asset this year: an advocate for public financing now sits in the governor's office. Last year, Gov. Pat Quinn displayed no shortage of enthusiasm for a so-called "clean election" system when campaign finance reforms were being negotiated. "Quinn seemed more interested in public financing than contribution limits," says David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "If he would say, 'This is the way we ought to go,' that would go a long way. We'll see."
As part of the reform package adopted last year (which include some limits on the sort of loans that Cohen gave himself), a task force will convene this summer to evaluate, among other things, the public financing option. Only time will tell what the members (eight appointed by legislative leaders, three by the governor's office) will come up with and how Madigan will react.
Would such a system eliminate the sort of embarrassment caused by Cohen's election? That's debatable, Morrison tells us. "Is there ever going to be a candidate that could overwhelm public financing? Sure," he says. "But you don't have to outspend. You just have to get your message out."