Legislators Mixed On Commission's Plans To End Pay-To-Play, Limit Campaign Contributions

05/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tim Taliaferro The Huffington Post

SPRINGFIELD - Just hours after launching the initial salvo to end pay-to-play in state government, members of a blue-ribbon group traveled from Chicago to Springfield to make the appeal again under the noses of the lawmakers who will have to make most of the panel's proposals reality.

Members of the Illinois Reform Commission on Tuesday outlined what might be uncomfortable proposals for some state legislators, most notably removing Illinois from the list of only four states that set no limits on campaign contributions. The commission's tentative proposal would cap individual campaign donations at $2,400 and those from committees at $5,000.

"I couldn't help but notice there wasn't a parade for us when we came into town," commission chair Patrick Collins joked.

The commissioners boiled down their main agenda to decoupling pay from play -donations from favors - and asked for dialogue with legislative leaders in Springfield to help make it happen.

"Our commission has a voice, but we do not have a vote," Collins said. "Our voice will be persistent and passionate, and we are entering the debate today in a public way."

The group decided to release the first part of its overall proposals Tuesday, Collins said, because the timing was right with lawmakers in session in Springfield and the impending indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, which Collins said he expected to be massive and wide-ranging.

The panel unveiled a number of measures that are unprecedented in Illinois, including requiring more rapid reporting of campaign contributions, prohibiting candidates from accepting donations from lobbyists and insulating contract procurement officials from political influence.

The $10 billion in contracts the state issues each year has long been ground zero for Illinois political corruption.

"The play side of pay-to-play is contracts," said commissioner David Hoffman, adding that the system in Illinois is so corrupt that some out-of-state companies don't even attempt to do business with the state.

"We cannot afford to be anything other than the state that receives full competition from around the country," Hoffman said, "and right now our system doesn't allow it."

The commission proposed adopting limits similar to federal election rules on the amount of money people or organizations can give and mandating that candidates for statewide office disclose contributions of $1,000 or more within five business days.

During his presentation, Collins showed a video featuring clips from media reports of corruption cases in the state and one from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" in which Stewart points out that Illinois governors are more likely to end up in jail than people who commit murder.

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Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, said the Speaker had received the group's preliminary report but had not yet gotten to look closely at it.

Madigan, Brown said, is open to the commission's recommendations and senses that the public has an expectation of change but wonders whether limiting campaign contributions would have the desired effects or whether it might hurt politicians who play by the rules while having little effect on those who don't.

"I'm not sure I've seen where a limit has made a crooked politician honest," Brown said.

The group also suggested centralizing all state procurement officers under one office to shield them from political influence and creating an independent monitor, who would not serve at the pleasure of the governor, to scrutinize in real time all bidding.

"When you combine a culture of corruption with a weak system," Hoffman said, "the pay-to-play abuses are going to be inevitable."

As part of the effort to strengthen the system, the group suggested mandating continuous full disclosure of subcontractors to prevent funneling money through clean contractors to companies that couldn't otherwise get state business.

Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, said he was familiar with the sorry state of procurement processes from hearings he has held as chairman of a committee that oversees state government.

"It's a cesspool," Franks said of the procurement process. "It stinks like hell, and it's not in the best interests of the citizens of the state - it's in the best interests of the politicians."

Collins said he had spoken with neither Gov. Pat Quinn nor Speaker Madigan about the recommendations but that the commission would be asking to testify before a joint committee on legislative reform that includes leaders of both the House and Senate.

Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton (D - Chicago), said Cullerton had not yet looked at the proposals as of Tuesday evening but that he intended to and was open to hearing what the group had to say.

"We're in an era of reform and that's something we are aware of," Phelon said, adding that Cullerton expects to pass legislation relating to campaign limits this year and possibly even this session.

"We recognize that this is something people want," Phelon said.

Quinn created the Illinois Reform Commission in January while still lieutenant governor and elevated it with his first executive order as governor.

Quinn spokeswoman Libby White said the governor believes the report released by the commission will be a good blueprint for moving forward with cleaning up politics and looks forward to hearing more from the commission in the next 30 days.

"We are stepping up the plate and we are adding our voice," Collins said. "I respectfully ask those in power to have their skin in the game and to put their proposals on the table for these topics and, if not, to tell us why these topics don't warrant discussion."

The commission holds its next meeting April 9 in Chicago on the topic of enforcement. Its final report is due April 27.