Friday, October 16, 2009

Illinois Legislative Reform? Or More Power to Politicians?

Email worth forwarding from Republican Dan Pelphrey.


Our View: More Power to Political Leaders? That isn't Reform

Forgive us for wondering why ethics/campaign financing reform is just so darn difficult in a state where money has affirmed and reaffirmed itself as the root of all political evil, with our fair share of devils in the federal pokey to prove it.

On Wednesday the Legislature opened its veto session with the House Executive Committee advancing a campaign finance limits bill championed by Speaker Michael Madigan to the House floor for a vote. While the bill would cap campaign contributions in Illinois for the first time, conveniently it exempts political parties and legislative leaders - like Madigan, chairman of Illinois' Democratic Party, himself.

As of this writing, the full House had not yet weighed in. Because a supermajority is needed for passage, at least one Republican would have to join a unanimous Democratic vote to then move the measure to the Senate. Should it fail, the two chambers could always vote to override the governor's August veto of House Bill 7, which also imposed donation ceilings, if set too high to be considered meaningful reform. Or they could do nothing, which would preserve the sky-is-the-limit status quo and allow Illinois to retain its title as the "Wild West" of campaign funding.

In some ways this rewrite is better than the flawed House Bill 7, specifically in restricting campaign contributions from individuals, unions and corporations to election cycles rather than permitting them every year. (Allowable gifts would still be fatter than federal limits.) But in other ways it's worse, as it strengthens leaders' hands at the expense of everybody else's. That's a deal-breaker.

Indeed, it is silly to pretend that party and leadership dollars don't alter the outcomes of local elections in ways that do not necessarily serve the best interests of the locals. The only exposure most voters have to the candidates is through campaign commercials - which many are gullible enough to believe - and in central Illinois, at least, big money from someplace else buys those ads.

Unfortunately that too often produces representation that is not independent, that is more beholden to those political benefactors than to their own constituents, that is not the best and the brightest that a community has to offer. (Indeed, it's far easier to manipulate the vote of a pushover than someone who has a mind of his or her own.) Arguably it rewards laziness, as candidates have less incentive to get out and meet and raise money from the locals and learn what their concerns are. We need look no farther than last year's 92nd District House race, where the overwhelming majority of campaign contributions to both sides were generated outside the Peoria area.

Might we venture that as a result, state government in Illinois has become an embarrassment, the laughingstock of the nation, wholly incapable of even confronting its most pressing and chronic problems?

Yet the reluctance of the state's legislative leaders and Madigan most of all to put the brakes on their personal ability to dispense funds and favors is almost palpable. "A political party exists to support its candidates. That's what it does," the Speaker said Wednesday, making no apologies. Madigan is clever but misstates the issue, which is this: It's not whether the parties should have influence but how much and at what point it becomes unhealthy, counterproductive to the clean - or at least non-corrupt - and competent functioning of government. We'd suggest we're at that point.

In fact it's always easier to discipline everyone but yourself. That's a theme that seems to be emerging in this six-day veto session, as another proposal has emerged, this one in the state Senate, that would give voters a crack at being able to recall a governor, but not any other Illinois politician.

The conniving can find a way around any law if they're so motivated but that's no reason to make it easy on them. Let's face it, Illinois is no longer the Land of Lincoln but the Pay-to-Play State. Given that, if the people running the show in Springfield can't pass a pro-good government, anti-scandal bill now, perhaps there's just no hope for them, as we approach elections next year.

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