Less than two years ago, Illinois for the first time in our history placed limits on contributions to political campaigns. It took anger and dismay over the travesties of the Blagojevich administration for this measure to pass. Its purpose was both to limit corruption and the influence of organized wealth at the expense of the very poor.
Now the Democratic leaders in the Illinois General Assembly are trying to create a wide loophole in this historic bill. They passed SB 3722 in the Illinois House this afternoon. This bill now returns to the State Senate for consideration of amendments to the original bill approved by the Senate last week. It is important that you contact your state Senators right now to ask them to oppose SB 3722.
The background is complicated but important. Until December, 2009, Illinois was one of only a handful of states without limits on contributions. The new bill limited contributions to candidate political committees to no more than $5,000 from individuals; $10,000 from corporations and unions; and $50,000 from political action committees. SB 3722 lifts these limits in races where Super PAC committees spend $250,000 or more in elections involving statewide candidates or $100,000 in races for state representative, senate, state supreme court and all other elections.
The leaders point to what is called the “millionaire’s amendment” in the current law that eliminates limits in races where an individual or his family self-finances his or her campaign. They argue that SB 3722 is but an extension of this clause. But there is a huge difference between a very wealthy Illinois resident deciding to finance her or his own campaign and allowing any individual or group from across the country to intervene in an Illinois race. It is even possible that supporters of Illinois candidates might invite such outsiders to participate in order to avoid the limits now in place.
The bill is hasty and premature. The new limits took effect on January 1, 2011 and therefore have not been in place for even a full election cycle. An Illinois Campaign Reform Task Force was created to review their impact and suggest changes. The amendments to SB 3722 completely bypass the mandate of this group.
We, too, are concerned about the influence that might flow from Super PAC contributions. But it is not clear how many such contributions will be made in state legislative races. And if they do occur, our political leaders can respond. Speaker of the Illinois House Michael Madigan and Minority Leader Tom Cross both have significant resources on hand and will be raising money throughout the summer.
As for the long run, it is time for us all to understand what the issue of money in politics is really about. We are more divided as a society than at any time since the Great Depression, perhaps even since the Civil War. A central cause is the ability of the very wealthy to fund political candidates who, once elected, pass measures that serve the interests of those who helped them get elected. Wealth perpetuates wealth.
It is not surprising that this happens. What is surprising, and shameful, is that we have not found ways to stem the power of the very rich to distort public policy and separate us as a people. Reversing a good first step is not the answer. Please act now to oppose SB 3722.