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Explaining “primary only” caps

Thursday, Oct 29, 2009 - Posted by Rich Miller

* Patterson talks to a legislator who explains why capping contributions in primaries and not general elections isn’t such a horrible move

If the idea is to make lawmakers more independent (and thereby more ethical), this key member said, then the target should be the primary, not the general. Here’s why:

Legislative leaders don’t want to lose seats on their respective sides of the aisles. So they’re not going to stop helping “their” candidates in the fall elections. What they might be inclined to do is go find a new candidate and write that candidate a blank check in the primary to replace a lawmaker who’s fallen out of favor. The leader keeps the seat and gets a loyal rookie.

The “reform” theory behind the primary caps is that if lawmakers know legislative leaders can’t easily punish them by running primary challengers, they might be more willing to stand up to leaders and vote more independently.

The problem this is likely to face in many media and political circles is that it’s unlikely to do anything to control the skyrocketing costs of general election campaigns.

The GA can’t do much to control the cost of general election campaigns. Mail houses, TV and radio outlets, etc. can’t be forced to lower their prices. Also, the media has been screaming for “reform” based on a whole lot of faulty assumptions. I’ve said here more than once that the Democratic leaders ought to just go ahead and cap themselves in all elections, but they are mightily resisting that idea and don’t appear ready to budge.

But the “primary only” cap idea does make a certain sense. A general rule of thumb is that only about ten or fifteen percent of seats are hotly challenged in fall campaigns. Most who win those races are under such intense scrutiny (because the winners are usually challenged in the next election) that it’s difficult to immediately become a party hack - they often deliberately vote against their own leaders’ positions in order to build credibility back home. Meanwhile, everybody else has a pretty safe seat, at least based on partisan breakdowns. The election that most members truly fear is the primary.

* The Tribune is not impressed with that logic and runs an editorial today entitled “Don’t call this ‘reform’“…

To appease the watchdog groups who insist on capping campaign contributions, lawmakers have offered to limit party spending in primaries, where they generally spend very little money anyway.

This might qualify as compromise, but it’s not reform.

The paper does open the door to an alternative which is gaining some favor at the Statehouse…

It only underscores the folly of trying to limit campaign contributions. Every set of rules creates a different set of winners and losers and a different set of loopholes for politicians to navigate around. The public interest is best served not by capping contributions, but by enforcing strict disclosure laws to ensure the money changes hands in broad daylight.

Near-immediate online disclosure of almost all contributions might wind up in the bill and caps stripped out, but the odds appear to be against it at this moment.

* Related…

* Bill Holland warns: Illinois needs better accountability: “Before I can even get to do the audits, there are hundreds of people over a multitude of agencies that have to supply the information,” Holland said. “It’s a cumbersome process, and our technology needs to be upgraded significantly.”

* University of Illinois: No-clout rules get their first test


  1. - wordslinger - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 10:20 am:

    It’s still strange to me that the outrage over the Blago $50 grand pay-to-play shakedowns has morphed into this focus on state parties and legislative leaders.

    In the post-Watergate campaign reform era, it was considered good government to keep limits off party contributions and expenditures as a way to limit the influence of “special interests.”

    That was in response to Nixon virtually divorcing himself from the GOP in ‘72 and gobbling up all the money through CREEP (has there every been a more appropriate acronym?).

  2. - just sayin' - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 10:24 am:

    Many of these so-called reforms are pushed by journalists and others who really don’t know jack about politics.

    Cap contributions from the caucus leaders? Big deal. All Madigan, Cross, Cullerton, or Radogno would have to do is create a new committee. Call it a “2012 Victory Fund” or some such thing. Create a dozen of them if you need to.

    Or the people who normally raise money for the leadership PACs can just direct the contributor PACs (mostly business and unions) to contribute directly to the candidates as directed by the leaders. The beneficiary member still knows where the help is coming from.

    A weak member is always going to be beholden to his or her caucus leader.

    You can’t legislate a spine.

    Redistricting reform is the key. That’s the meaningful reform we need.

    Cutting pay to a true part-time, nominal salary would also be good. We wouldn’t have so many losers who sell their souls on command if we had more people who weren’t just there because they couldn’t make more in the private sector.

  3. - MKK - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 10:30 am:

    The logic for primary only caps is at best weak and certainly debatable, but that’s all designed to deflect attention from the main point which is this limited concession by the leadership really won’t matter at all to them. Sure, you’ll be limited in contributing to your assembly candidate but write a check to the party and you can put as many zeros on it as you like.

  4. - The Doc - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 10:38 am:

    just sayin’, well said. The MSM has taken its collective eye off the ball. Redistricting reform is the antidote here, and that’s where the attention should be focused, along with ability to track the source of contributions in real-time.

  5. - Louis G. Atsaves - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:00 am:

    Fair redistricting and you will get more primary races. Fair redistricting and you will get more real contested general election races.

    More races, more real contests, the more difficult it is for a leader to call the shots and maintain control through funding, no matter how many caps and loopholes exist in “ethics” legislation.

    A legislative leader can arrange for direct donations to candidates or form other organizations to get around all these “reforms.”

    Let’s start with the real reform. Changing our redistricting methods for that of Iowa.

  6. - Scooby - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:13 am:

    This immediate disclosure stuff is just not practical. It sounds like it should be easy to people who think in simplistic terms but it’s not. If someone hands you a check, you can disclose it that day. If you write a check you can disclose it that day. But for campaigns big enough to have about ten people on staff you’re going to have a ton of other issues. You’ll probably have a few staffers with campaign credit cards who need to make emergency purchases. You’ll have people turn in reimbursement requests for whatever receipts they had while traveling. You’ll get contributions from any number of sources including people who hand you checks, people who give credit card contributions through your website, people who give through third party bundlers like Act Blue, people who give through the big party committees, etc. And all of that doesn’t get reconciled every day, it usually happens when the monthly statements come in, and those don’t come in the day after the month ends you usually have to wait at least a week.

    The point is that it’s not practical to expect that any campaign larger than a mom and pop shop could reasonable be able to have 24 hour currency on their financial data given the myriad of input and output transaction types. We’re just setting ourselves up for an endless stream of frivolous complaints.

  7. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:21 am:

    ===could reasonable be able to have 24 hour currency on their financial data given the myriad of input and output transaction types===

    I may agree on 24 hours. But what about 48 or 72?

  8. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:21 am:

    Also, there’s little talk of immediate expenditure reporting, just contributions.

  9. - Scooby - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:27 am:

    If it’s limited in scope it can be done. In the last few weeks of the elections you already have 48 hr reporting on large contributions and it takes an all hands on deck mentality to meet that but it can be done. It’s actually easier on contributions than expenditures and if you were to limit it to contributons that is more practical. The hard part there is on bank interest for your checking/money market account and offsets to expenditures if you’re reporting that as a contribution. Otherwise most campaigns get some sort of real time reporting on their contributions. The only part that can be tough is if you have a large finance staff and/or you have to interpret the law on who is/isn’t an agent of the campaign such that when you have someone collecting checks for an event that you’re having when do you determine that the campaign has received them. Those can be complicated, but you can manage them. It’s much harder on the expenditure side and you would literally see people just check themselves into the loony bin.

  10. - Michelle Flaherty - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:43 am:

    Require the campaigns to register their bank accounts with the Elections Board and then mandate that the banks must report all deposits immediatly or face penalties for the state charter.

    Lets see how the business groups like that reform.

  11. - Scooby - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:45 am:

    The other piece of it that I forgot that will drive you crazy are in-kind contributions. They’re often overlooked as an afterthought in the contribution world but they really are contributions. But getting them in real time is tough. You’ll have any number of events from fundraising where the event holder either paid for the room rental, catering, invites, postage, etc to an endorsement session where some large entity such as a union, chamber of commerce, business group, etc could have paid for something as simple as a mult box so the tv stations could get audio, to having free rent at satellite campaign offices or someone is hosting a phone bank for you, or any number of things where people who aren’t as sophisticated and aware of all the rules governing campaigns are trying to be helpful and trying to follow the rules but just don’t know enough to know that they have to tell the person in charge of reporting all of this immediately. Staying on top of all that is tough.

  12. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:48 am:

    ===Staying on top of all that is tough.===

    Requiring in-kind contributors to report their own contributions might address much of that.

  13. - Scooby - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:48 am:

    The banks holding campaing bank accounts are already required to be reported on your D-1 statement of organization. And if a campaign opens a new bank account at a new bank they are required to amend their D-1 and disclose that. Requiring the banks to disclose deposits doesn’t make a lot of sense because it wouldn’t tell you what individual donations made up the deposit. And if you wanted to have the banks disclose copies of the checks that got deposited that wouldn’t even necessarily tell you more than what the current law requires because often times basic information such as the donor’s address isn’t printed on the check and in the case of an individual giving greater than $500 the employer and occupation of the donor will not be printed on the check so your suggestion would actually give you less disclosure than the current law requires.

  14. - Scooby - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 11:55 am:

    == Requiring in-kind contributors to report their own contributions might address much of that. ==

    Actually the current law doesn’t impose the disclosure of inkinds on the campaign it imposes it on the donor. The law says, and I’m paraphrasing here, that anyone providing an inkind to a campaign is required to fill out the form for inkinds that the State Board of Elections has and send it to the campaign and the campaign only has to disclose what they’ve been made aware of through these kinds of notifications. That’s the legal obligation on the campaign. However in practical terms as a camapign you have to just assume that anything you could reasonably be aware your opponent will accuse you of being deceptive and the press will cream you on. So if you’re a candidate and your brother in law is a real estate developer who’s got a bunch of vacant storefront offices because the market’s in the tank and he gives you a free campaign office, according to the law it’s on your brother in law to notify you via a form that he’s given you an inkind and if he fails to do so you don’t really have to report it, but if you file your D-2 and the whole world knows that you’re getting free rent and your oppenent hits you for failing to disclose an obvious contribution from your brother in law, no one’s going to give a crap what the letter of the law says, you’re just going to eat it in the press for a while. So the practical effect ends up being that the campaign has to take most of the responsbility for reporting inkinds.

  15. - One of the 35 - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 12:15 pm:

    Bill Holland’s comments are particularly disturbing. Not only is it extremely difficult to obtain the information necessary to properly audit state agencies, but then when they are finally audited, they seem to disregard the findings. These major obstacles do not give us any confidence that state government can be fixed.

  16. - CircularFiringSquad - Thursday, Oct 29, 09 @ 1:47 pm:

    Let’s start at the bottom and work up…Big IKE was wandering around the State House looking for fresh hand outs and trying to explain the demise of the very expensive football program. He did not predict when BlueFieldBob Kustra hits town….The campaign finance gibberish gets the special intrests closer to full control which has always been a Tribune goal…remember they once had a ComEd Exec on their board….Holland should get whatever he says he needs

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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