By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog
CHICAGO – Illinois cannot stop outside political spending, but reformers in the state are hoping they can at least force some honesty in time for the next election.
Illinois’ Campaign Finance Reform Task Force heard from an alphabet soup of reform groups Thursday as the state prepares a between-election report on outside spending and campaign contribution limits.
David Morrison, deputy director with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said outside groups spent $2 million on state legislative races for the November election, with the lion’s share, $1.7 million, from super PACs.
Morrison fears those numbers will skyrocket in 2014 when Illinois voters decide on a governor.
“The bigger concern is that you get some fly-by-night operation that comes in and says, ‘We’re a super PAC, here’s a bunch of money, but we’re not telling you where it came from,’ and disappears,” Morrison said.
Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. And while Super PACs do have to report donors, when the money comes from a politically active nonprofit organization, the original source may be obscured. Nonprofits do not have to disclose their donors.
In the most recent election cycle, most of the super PAC spending in Illinois was on congressional races, which is regulated at the federal level.
Morrison said since it will be tough to cap spending, the least Illinois can do is be honest with voters.
“You have to let voters know where the money is coming from,” Morrison said. “The true source of the money. Who is really speaking to voters. So they can make an informed decision.”
Kathy Ryg, a former state representative and current treasurer at the government reform group Change Illinois, raised the ghosts of Illinois’ past in her push for super PAC transparency.
“We have to take the lessons we learned with the (George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich) scandals and make sure we do everything possible to maintain faith and trust in our election process.”
Ryan and Blagojevich, both former Illinois governors, were convicted of corruption for using their offices to enhance their campaign war chests.
Morrison said super PAC donors may not write a check in anticipation of a job but may still want something for their money.
“Whether it is an actual quid pro quo … which is outright corruption, or, ‘I am going to do a favor for someone because my constituents are not paying close attention,’” Morrison said.
The Jobs PAC, formed by the Illinois Manufacturers’ and Illinois Retail Merchants’ associations, was the biggest spender in Illinois’ legislative races in 2012. The Jobs PAC spent nearly $400,000 on a number of races across the state. The money paid for everything from robocalls to direct mail pieces to cable TV ads.
In addition to more transparency requirements for super PACs, reform groups want to compel politically active nonprofits to open their books and disclose their donors.
Attempts to reach PAC organizers were not successful.
The campaign task force is not promising what will or will not be in its final report to the State Board of Elections, and eventually state lawmakers. The task force is expected to finish that report by the end of the month.
Contact Benjamin Yount at [email protected].