A Publication of WTVP

As I traveled the State of Illinois earlier this year exploring a possible bid for governor, I had the unique opportunity to see first-hand the dramatic differences between political fundraising for state and local candidates in Illinois and fundraising for federal candidates. It’s a stark and troubling difference.

One of the things I took away from this experience is that legislators in Illinois need to make serious changes to a campaign funding system that does much to encourage corruption in our state. When a person is elected to any position in this country—from school board to the presidency—that person must realize they’re obliged to adhere to the highest ethical standards. One can’t fudge on ethics to further his or her own political career.

Unfortunately, scandal after scandal has dominated headlines across Illinois in recent years. We have a former governor currently on trial for corruption. The current governor’s administration is under investigation on numerous fronts, and it seems like there are daily stories about the misdeeds of public officials from Chicago to Cairo. While politicians as a group never have high popularity numbers among the public, we now have a citizenry in our state that’s lost confidence in our elected officials.

So much of this can be tied to the influx of enormous amounts of money into political war chests, coupled with woefully inadequate State of Illinois campaign finance laws; our state’s “anything goes” system contributes to a political environment that’s become far too familiar with corruption. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Illinois is one of only five states that doesn’t restrict contributions.

Candidates for state and local office in Illinois have almost no restrictions on where their contributions come from and how much can be raised. To think that someone can write a check for $50,000, $100,000, or even $1 million to a state candidate is obscene. To think that a contribution can come directly from the coffers of a business that may, in return, receive state contracts or directly from unions that may represent state employees, well, that’s just plain wrong.

Another troubling aspect of state campaign finance laws is the ability of elected officials to take contributions from their own employees. These types of contributions to political campaigns and high-ranking state officials only fuel the perception that those in important positions want to line their own political pockets.

In contrast to state guidelines, the federal guidelines for Congress and the president have strict limits on contributions, rigid reporting guidelines to the Federal Election Commission, and have felony penalties for those who break the law. An individual contributor is limited to a maximum of $2,100, and political action committees are limited to $5,000 during each election cycle. No money can be accepted from corporations or unions; it must come from either an individual or a political action committee. Also, under federal law, I can’t accept contributions from employees of my office. State and local governments would be well served if this was the law in Illinois.

The federal reporting guidelines are thorough as well, but I support even more reporting requirements. In non-election years, federal campaigns must submit quarterly reports. During election years, in addition to quarterly reports, pre-election reports are due 12 days before the primary and general elections, and a post-election report is due 30 days after the general election. Contributions of $1,000 or more that are received 20 days or less before an election must also be reported to the FEC within 48 hours. It seems the 48-hour notice is about the only area where state law exceeds the federal law. Contributions of $500 or more within 30 days of an election must be reported with 48 hours under state law. This provision is good.

The governor likes to tout that he offered some tough state restrictions during the spring legislative session this year. Unfortunately, I believe this proposal is like so many of his proposals: simply a public relations gimmick. As I raised funds for a potential run for governor, I did so under the stringent federal guidelines, even though I was counseled by the FEC that I didn’t have to follow their guidelines for a potential state campaign. I didn’t think I would “rock the system”; I just believed it was the right thing to do until I made a decision on running for the office.

To date, there’s been no serious effort to reform the campaign finance laws in our state. There was talk of ethics reform during this fall’s General Assembly Veto Session, but it’s my understanding this proposal doesn’t address the underlying problem of campaign funding.

Until public officials in Illinois enact strong campaign reforms in our state, we’ll continue to see investigations and trials that, in large measure, are due to this system. In the end, though, it’s the elected officials themselves who must set the example. We all must conduct ourselves with integrity, demand honesty from our staff, and attempt to regain the trust of Illinoisans through our actions. IBI