New Illinois Campaign Finance Law Reduces Transparency

Published October 16, 2013 at the Rock River Times

Changes to Illinois campaign finance disclosure law will make it easier for political bankrollers to hide behind first-time candidates. Public Act 98-0115, effective July 29, 2013, made several changes to Illinois disclosure law, including a $2,000 increase in the threshold for new political committee formation. That means a candidate can now raise or spend up to $5,000 before he or she is required to file with the State Board of Elections.

Previously, the threshold for new political committee formation was $3,000. According to the Illinois State Board of Elections, “Once it has been determined that your campaign has exceeded $3,000 in either receipts or expenditures… it must file a Statement of Organization (Form D-1) with the State Board of Elections within 10 business days.” (A Guide to Campaign Disclosure, Jan. 2013)

Filing with the State Board of Elections means (among other things) that cumulative contributions from an individual totaling $150 or more during an election cycle must be itemized on a publicly available quarterly report. The donor’s name, address, and the amount of his or her donation appear on that report. If the candidate has not reached the threshold for new political committee formation, however, that information remains private.

The recent amendment to Illinois disclosure law was introduced as HB2418 in the Illinois House by Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) and in the Illinois Senate by Senator Don Harmon (D-Oak Park). It passed 32-20 in the Senate and 66-49 in the House, largely along party lines. Governor Quinn signed it into law on July 29, 2013. The changes only apply to political committees created July 29, 2013 or later.

Increasing the threshold for new political committee formation by a few thousand dollars will not have much effect on statewide races ($5,000 is pocket change for a statewide race). It will, however, have a substantial effect on local elections, where candidates spend much less. Races for city council, county board, park district, and township board will be particularly impacted. Outside the City of Chicago, for example, it would be unusual for a candidate to raise or spend more than $10,000 to run for alderman.

For many local races, raising the threshold for new political committee formation to $5,000 will mean political financiers can influence elections from the shadows. A well-funded primary opponent, for example, can knock a political rival off the ballot before the general election. The individuals or organizations that provided the funding will remain safely anonymous. This prevents the public from having complete information about the money behind political newcomers. It also allows candidates or political action committees that never raise or spend more than $5,000 in an election cycle to hide their financial backers.

There are other concerns as well. Suppose you are a prominent lawyer and political donor who wishes to unseat an incumbent from the city council. You donate a large sum of money to the son of a longtime friend. Under the previous Illinois campaign disclosure law, you could donate as much as $2,999 anonymously to kick start his campaign committee. Under the current law, you could donate as much as $4,999 anonymously.

Later, when your friend’s son becomes alderman and seeks to appoint you to a public committee, the public will have no way to confirm any direct financial connection. So the wealthy and well-connected can trade campaign cash for political influence and only the candidate, God, and the donor will ever know. This change in the law makes that kind of backroom deal much more lucrative.

I do not believe in putting limits on campaign contributions, but I do believe those contributions should be public record. Raising the threshold for new political committee formation was a step in the wrong direction. There should be no threshold. Everyone who raises money to run for public office should be required to file with the State Board of Elections. That would shed much needed light on the murky world of campaign finance.

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