Editorial: Tame the 'Wild West' of Illinois campaign cash

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

In last year's campaign for the right to represent the Peoria area's 92nd District in the Illinois House, the two candidates on the general election ballot spent $1.5 million between them, roughly $43 per vote.

It was one of the state's five most expensive House races. The overwhelming majority of the money was generated outside the 92nd District - from party and personal funds controlled by legislative leaders, from unions, corporations and their political action committees.

In winner Jehan Gordon's case, 85 percent of the dollars she claimed after July 1 last year came from beyond the 92nd, more than half from Illinois' Democratic Party, chaired by House Speaker Michael Madigan. Less than 2 percent came from individuals. GOP challenger Joan Krupa got 70 percent of her financial support from outside the immediate Peoria area. House Minority Leader Tom Cross kicked in just under 50 percent. Individuals ponied up 20 percent.

That kind of spending and the fact there are no limits on contributions - particularly from non-locals trying to influence local races in ways that don't necessarily serve local interests - are behind the efforts to reform the way candidates can raise campaign funds. If Illinois is the political corruption capital of America, and money corrupts most of all in one of the last four states where anything goes, well, connect the dots.

Capping contributions was among the six recommendations made by the Illinois Reform Commission, appointed by Gov. Patrick Quinn to help rid Illinois of the "Wild West" millstone hanging around state government's neck. The commission's proposal would mimic federal limits with a $2,400 cap on individual contributions, $5,000 from PACs and $30,000 on transfers from leaders to legislative candidates, per election cycle.

Naturally legislative leaders have balked at any efforts that might dilute their power, with Senate Democrats pitching their own plan of $5,000 from individuals and $10,000 from PACs per year, with the sky remaining the limit on the dollars legislative leaders can rain on candidates.

We suppose some caps are better than no caps, though it's fair to wonder how $2,300 was sufficient for Barack Obama and John McCain - it's $2,400 now - but not for Jehan Gordon and Joan Krupa. The competing "per election cycle" vs. "per year" clauses also make a big difference; obviously writing a check year after year carries more clout.

But ultimately any progress here is undone with no ceilings being imposed on the largesse of legislative leaders, and might be a step backward. If you believe as we do that the speaker of the House and the Senate president have too much muscle now, this arguably would give them more, making rank-and-file members even more dependent on them while tying up the wallets of others. It's tantamount to no reform at all; as such, a deal-breaker.

Krupa, who testified before the Reform Commission, agrees.

She calls the spending "ridiculous," even though she raised enough to be quite competitive. The system is broken, she says, because local candidates have less incentive to go knocking locally for the funds to get their message out. As a result most voters barely know the person they're voting for - or against - beyond the attack ads they see on television. While Krupa believes she maintained control of her campaign, often that's not the case. And while there was never any mention of strings being attached to the money, arguably there is an unspoken expectation that a legislator will be there when the leader needs him or her. It's human nature to feel obligated, but in this case to special interests, not to the locals.

From where we sit, that does not make for better Illinois government, the proof of which is happening before our very eyes. There are good legislators, and central Illinois has been blessed to have a few, but on the whole, who thinks those seats are occupied by this state's best, brightest and most independent? Who thinks their legislators have any real say in the budget passed at the last minute every year? Raise your hand if you believe Springfield has confronted the state's most pressing problems rather than dodging them so the power structure can preserve the status quo. Illinois' reputation for producing political crooks rubs off on all of them, fair or not; if public buy-in is critical to good government, how does that perception help?

"Basically, it's all about power and who is going to control X number of seats," Krupa said. "It should be about who can represent the people in your district best."

We don't buy the argument that campaign spending limits will only permit millionaires to seek public office. That might carry more weight if we saw more Donald Trumps coveting seats in Springfield. We also might be more sympathetic to constitutional concerns regarding free speech rights if Illinois wasn't the nation's foremost example of "pay-to-play" on steroids, with impeached and indicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich providing so many state jobs, appointments and contracts to the 435 donors who gave him at least $25,000. Surely the Founders could not have dreamt of government by Blagojevich, for auction to the highest bidders.

This legislation would help level the playing field. Our interest here is only this: more competent and less corrupt government. It's unlikely to help the bottom lines of media outlets that accept advertising from political candidates.

The state Senate should soon vote on this legislation. It is a real test of Illinois' resolve to reform, with the whole nation watching.

Peoria Journal Star