Campaign finance reforms add more stringent disclosure rules

Ryan Keith

New limits on donations are the centerpiece of campaign finance reform lawmakers tout as a real breakthrough from the recent veto session.

But the measure awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn's expected approval goes further than limits. Politicians will have to disclose who's giving them money much more often. And state regulators will have more power to look for violations and punish them.

The reforms included in Senate Bill 1466 won't affect the upcoming 2010 elections, with a start date instead of January 2011. Officials at the State Board of Elections are using that time to figure out the details and see what more is needed to work out any snags.

"We have been reviewing it. We're still taking a look at it," said Dan White, the board's executive director. "It certainly poses some challenges."

Here are some practical scenarios of how the measure would affect political donation reporting and oversight.

Scenario: Candidate A, running for the Democratic nomination for governor, collects more than $750,000 from teachers' unions, fellow Democrats and others. How much does the candidate have to disclose, and when?

Answer: Candidates, under current law, have to detail all their fundraising and spending every six months.

Under the new measure, that would double to four times a year. And they'd have to disclose any donations of $1,000 or more they receive year-round within five days of receiving them – the first time Illinois has had full-year disclosure.

David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which helped negotiate the measure, said that would make Illinois' already strong disclosure system among the nation's best.

"That's a huge bump in disclosure," Morrison said. "We should get a lot more disclosure a lot sooner."

Scenario: Donations are coming in quickly to candidates in the final weeks before the election. Candidate A receives more than 20 donations worth $1,000 or more apiece, and another 10 worth between $500 and $1,000. How would those be disclosed?

Answer: Reform advocates did make some disclosure concessions.

Right now, candidates, in the 30 days leading up to elections, have to disclose any donations they receive of $500 or more within two days of getting those donations. The new law would bump that threshold up to $1,000 or more.

Why? Morrison said it was a calculated move. They traded the higher threshold for year-round reporting in hopes of seeing more often the large donations that raise questions about influence peddling.

Republicans have said the higher level will just encourage smaller donations to get around the reporting. Morrison argues there aren't usually that many donations between $500 and $1,000 anyway.

"That was a deal that was worth doing," Morrison said.

But how smaller donations will be counted is still a question.

Candidate A would have to report a $1,500 donation given by a large union, but it's unclear if five $300 donations by the same union would have to be added up and reported.

Morrison said there might need to be more legislation if that becomes an exploited loophole.

Scenario: A large union writes Candidate A a check for $25,000 on Nov. 1, and the candidate puts that in the bank on Nov. 20. Donor Joe Smith gives Candidate A a $1,000 donation by credit card through his campaign Web site on Nov. 10. What's the disclosure practice there?

Answer: Both would have to be disclosed – but the credit card donation would be first.

The measure considers a donation received when the cash hits the account, not necessarily when it shows up at the campaign office. Credit card transactions, though, are considered received as soon as they're completed.

So, reform advocates argue, a campaign worried about disclosing a big donation at the wrong time could hang onto that check for a little while before depositing it.

But regulators say it actually could help avoid mistakes.

Under the new donation limits, campaigns have to either return or donate to charity any money that comes in above the capped amounts or they face turning the money over to the state and being fined.

Rupert Borgsmiller, the elections board's assistant executive director, says that gives campaigns extra incentive to get their accounting right and make sure donations don't go over the limits.

If there are violations, the board's regular reviews of reports should reveal them, he said.

Scenario: Candidate B learns that rival Candidate A is cashing checks but not reporting them properly in the final weeks of their heated race. How would that be handled?

The State Board of Elections has more teeth under this new measure to weed out violations. That includes random audits of political committees to see if they're following the law and targeted audits in cases where they have cause to go after them.

"We wanted a tool that would let the state board say ‘this doesn't make any sense’," Morrison said.

How much it will change the environment is still unclear. Borgsmiller said the board already receives complaints daily and in many cases determines quickly they're unfounded.

"The board can investigate any violations of the statute," Borgsmiller said. "How are you going to be able to prove it?"

A bigger question is resources. The board right now has a staff of eight to monitor reports from about 4,000 political committees, Borgsmiller said. Doubling reporting and increasing enforcement only will add to that large workload.

"The staff is going to have to be increased," Borgsmiller said.

There's also the issue of disclosing the disclosures online. The board's Web site right now shows when reports are filed in real time. But it doesn't offer alerts notifying when new disclosures come in, for example.

Keeping the public informed is a priority and improvements will be worked on, Borgsmiller said.

"We want to get the information out there the best that we can," Borgsmiller said.

Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518 orryan.keith@sj-r.com.