Less than two years after the state’s first caps on campaign contributions went into effect, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill today that would eliminate those limits if outside groups funnel cash into campaigns. Senate Bill 3722 would allow candidates in Illinois to ignore contribution limits when outside groups, called political action committees (PACs), spend money in a race. The bill is a response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows PACs to take in unlimited contributions as long as their efforts are not coordinated with candidates’ campaigns. Before the ruling, PACs could accept up to $10,000 from individual donors and $20,000 from unions and corporations. Under SB 3722, is such a PAC spends more than $100,000 campaigning for a single candidate in a municipal race or a bid for the state legislature, then candidates in that race would not have to stick to limits on how much money they can accept from donors. In a statewide race, the threshold would be $250,000 spent by an outside group. Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a sponsor of the bill, said the new law is intended to keep outside groups from deciding elections by opening potentially bottomless wallets. “I think what’s important about this bill is that no legislator is going to have to run in an election — in which somebody comes into the election with big bucks — with one hand tied behind her back,” she said.
Reform groups say the law creates a loophole that will allow candidates to circumvent the state’s contribution limits. David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said nothing in the law stops candidates from having their own PACs that operate separately from their campaigns, much like both presidential candidates are doing in their current campaigns. If such a PAC spends over the limits in the law, then the candidate would be able to skirt contribution limits, even though the PAC and the campaign did not technically work together. “This bill lays out a road map for evading limits,” he said. “The only definition of independence in this thing is that you don’t actively coordinate expenditures. You can share vendors. You can share staff … you can spend all of your money on one single candidate, which is again what we see at the federal level.”
Morrison acknowledged that the political landscape has changed in the wake of recent court rulings — including the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which allows so called super PACs to raise and spend unlimited cash as long as they are not working with candidates. However, he said SB 3722 goes too far. “No other state in the country that’s dealing with this problem has responded by saying, ‘Oh, then we’ll just take limits off.’”