While reform groups, newspaper editorial boards, Republicans and others blasted a campaign finance reform bill passed by the General Assembly last week, there were a couple of big surprises which went almost unnoticed.


For instance, powerful leaders of Statehouse special interest groups said they would be hobbled by the bill.


The legislation not only caps the amount of money that political action commitees can give to candidates, it also caps the cash that PACs can raise from its own members - an almost unheard of limit on political activity.


PACs are limited from accepting any contributions over $10,000 a year from "natural persons" and can't take more than $20,000 per year from corporations, labor unions and associations.


The new rule would slam corporate PACs like the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois, according to ABDI President Bill Olson, who testified against the legislation during the Senate Executive Committee last week. Olson's PAC is one of the most influential and wealthy in the state, but its success relies on a relatively small number of large contributions from its members. Several other business groups are in the same situation.


PACs would also be severely limited on what are called "in-kind" donations. Quite a few groups, particularly labor unions, don't just give money to candidates. They also assign paid staff to campaigns, run phone banks, do mailers to their own members and even air TV ads. But the bill is written in a way which would include in-kind donations in a PAC's $10,000 annual campaign contribution cap to candidates. So, most of that will apparently end.


The legislation allows only a "natural person" to make independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, so that option - which is used extensively under the federal campaign system - would not be available to PACs and other groups in Illinois.


By severely limiting spending activities, the hugely powerful legislative leaders will be able to more thoroughly control the message they want delivered to voters and prevent outside interference in campaigns.


Groups like the pro-choice Personal PAC spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct mail and other advertising during election cycles to define candidates as pro-choice or anti-abortion. That independent spending has made Personal PAC one of the most feared political forces in the state. But much of the group's spending would likely be banned by this new legislation, unless it, and others, can find a way around the law.


Republicans blasted the bill because they said it was designed to strengthen the already powerful legislative leaders. They have a point. Besides the PAC limitations, the bill allows leaders like the House Speaker and the Senate President to make unlimited in-kind contributions. Their cash donations would be limited to $90,000 a year, but that means a Senate incumbent with a four-year term could still receive as much as $360,000 in cash from his or her leader.


The use of annual limits in the bill also came under fire by reformers.


Campaign contribution caps are often criticized as unfair to challengers because they limit how much money they can raise against incumbents who often have far more ties to the monied interests. On the federal level, though, contributions are capped per election cycle. For instance, PACs can only give $5,000 to a federal candidate for a primary race, even if that primary is for a US Senator who won't run again until five years from now.


But under this state legislation, the caps are annual. That means a sitting governor can raise $10,000 every year for four years from a single PAC. Since his or her challenger wouldn't likely gear up to run until the year before an election, a challenger would only get two, at most, bites from the same PAC apple, putting that person at a distinct disadvantage.


Some of the bill is quite good. But these annual caps are a horrible abuse of power by incumbents.




Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.