SPRINGFIELD -- Campaign finance limits went into effect at the beginning of the year in Illinois, but reform groups say the state still has work to do.


SPRINGFIELD -- Campaign finance limits went into effect at the beginning of the year in Illinois, but reform groups say the state still has work to do.

“(The campaign finance bill) is a really good first step,” said Mary Schaafsma, issues specialist for the League of Women Voters of Illinois.

“But, for those of us who are been around reform issues for decades, we don’t give up, because you never know where the tipping point will be, and the public really understands the relationship in Springfield and the power held by the legislature.”

For the first time, Illinois law now limits the amount of money that individuals, businesses, unions and political action committees can donate to candidates. It also includes more stringent disclosure measures.

However, the law does not limit transfers of money from political parties or caucuses, which are often headed by legislative leaders, to candidates.

“A good part of the money comes from leader coffers, like (House Speaker Michael) Madigan and (Senate President John) Cullerton,” Schaafsma said. “We’d like to see a cap on that, particularly in a state where the leaders exert so much influence over members.”

The new law limits caucus contributions to candidates during primary elections, but not in general elections. House minority leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, introduced House Bill 232, which would apply the primary limits to the general election.

“We’re hopeful we can get a hearing on it and move it forward,” Cross spokeswoman Sara Wojcicki said. “But we (Republicans) don’t control the chamber, and we don’t control the Rules Committee.”

It will be a hard sell when those who benefit from the status quo are the ones considering the reforms, Schaafsma said.

 

Redistricting

Another way to limit the power of legislative leaders would be to change the way redistricting is done, Schaafsma said.

“Right now, redistricting is done by the leaders, who favor incumbents – in the most recent map, 90 percent of incumbents were reelected,” Schaafsma said. “We want to empower voters, not incumbents.”

Legislative districts are redrawn every decade after the U.S. Census. Because Democrats control both chambers and the governorship, it will be easier for them to pass a map that favors their members, Schaafsma said.

A bill currently on Gov. Quinn’s desk would require four public hearings as well as protection for areas dominated by minority groups -- such as Chicago’s Chinatown, which was cut into three districts the last time the map was drawn. If the bill passes, it will be the first time in 40 years Illinois’ redistricting process has been changed.

Reform groups are pleased with the idea of public hearings, but would like the see more drastic action.

“We have to see it (the redistricting process) taken out of the hands of elected officials,” Schaafsma said. “Ideally, we’d like to see an independent commission draw the map.”

Such a change would require a constitutional amendment to be approved by voters. Two such measures, one backed by Democrats and one by Republicans, were discussed in the last legislative session, but neither made it to the floor for a vote.

Republicans hope to try again, though the chances of overcoming Democrats on the issue appear slim.

“Citizens deserve a fair map, one done in sunshine, not done behind closed doors,” said Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno.

 

Statements of economic interest

Another area where reformers hope to see progress is in statements of economic interest from political candidates and elected officials.

The Illinois constitution requires candidates to file statements disclosing their sources of income and any major investments. The goal is to show voters where conflicts of interest might lie.

However, in a 2008 report, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform called the statements a “waste of paper.”

“It (an economic interest statement) does not capture what voters need to make informed decisions,” campaign assistant director David Morrison said.

“There was a big clamor last year for candidates to release their income tax forms, and I think that’s a recognition of the fact that the statements of economic interest are inadequate.”

The report said questions on the form are so vague that most candidates answered “none” or “does not apply” to most questions. The campaign called for more detailed reporting on the statement, as well as publication online.

 

Reforms unlikely

Political scientist and UIS professor emeritus Kent Redfield said those reforms are unlikely to be addressed in the next General Assembly.

“Right now, the overwhelming priority is the budget, and in some sense it sort of sucks the air out of everything else,” Redfield said.

The attitudes of the legislative leaders reflect that.

“The Senate president’s primary focus this session is the state budget,” Cullerton spokesman John Patterson said. “A lot of tough decisions must be made in order to comply with the new spending limits Democrats put in place.”

Asked what Madigan’s legislative priorities were, spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker wants to make sure the state is able to provide state services to the best of its ability.

“There are going to be some changes, probably some reductions in spending, because of the fiscal disaster that’s befallen Illinois and every other state,” Brown said.

However, there is some hope that reforms will be addressed, Redfield said.

“Legislators want to accomplish things,” Redfield said. “New initiatives that cost money are really nonstarters. Things that don’t look more attractive.”

Things like statements of economic interest and, in the wake of the Rahm Emanuel residency dispute, ballot access might see some action in the new session, he said.

“There’s a possibility of getting these things out there and getting movement because people want to take credit,” Redfield said.

 

Andy Brownfield can be reached at (217) 782-3095.