Contribution limits at risk in states thanks to Supreme Court

Citizens United in the states

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Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right.

M. Spencer Green/AP

A campaign finance arms race is in danger of breaking out in Illinois and at least three other states as lawmakers use the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as justification for raising or even eliminating campaign contribution limits.

In Illinois, for example, the legislature voted last month to repeal limits on corporate contributions to candidates when super PACs or individuals spend more than $250,000 on a state race or $100,000 on a local race.

The move would balance spending between outside groups and candidates, say supporters. But it could also lead to far greater spending in elections, raising concerns about possible corruption, say critics.

Twenty-four states had bans in place against corporate or union spending on elections that were knocked down by Citizens United. Nineteen of the 24 states passed laws to require better disclosure.

The Illinois bill, introduced by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, expands an existing loophole in Illinois’ campaign finance law.

In May, the bill passed the state House 30-26 and the Senate 63-55 with no Republican support and awaits Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature or veto. Quinn signed campaign finance legislation into law in 2009 that limited contributions to elected officials to $5,000 from an individual, $10,000 from a business or labor group and $50,000 from a regulated political action committee.

The same law also limited donations to outside spending groups. The law went into effect in January 2011. But the outside spending provision was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, who cited the Citizens United decision.

“I want to level the playing field as best I can manage,” Currie said. She says that her bill will help candidates who face opposition from wealthy super PACs.

With the current limits on candidates and unrestricted spending by super PACs, Currie said, “you’re basically turning over our democracy to the deepest pockets.”

That’s exactly what opponents, led by Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, fear the bill will do. He called the legislation a “direct about-face” on campaign finance reform and a reversal of any progress the state legislature had made in combating corruption.

Campaign watchdog groups Change! Illinois and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) are calling for a veto of the bill and instead are asking for increased penalties for coordinated activities between super PACs and candidates.

The law would give wealthy groups even more control — a super PAC donor would effectively have the power to create a no-contribution-limit election, according to David Morrison, the deputy director of the ICPR.

Morrison, testifying before a legislative committee, said that spending in races for the Illinois Supreme Court seats and for Chicago mayor had historically exceeded the threshold proposed in the bill.

Though Citizens United overturned limitations on corporate and/or union spending in 24 states it upheld the states’ power to set limits on direct campaign contributions to candidates as tools for fighting corruption.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that contributions to candidates, unlike uncoordinated independent expenditures, have a greater potential for creating corruption.

Prior to 2011, Illinois was among five states to allow unrestricted donations from corporations or individuals to candidates. Lawmakers placed these limits after a number of highly-publicized corruption cases, including the arrests of two Illinois governors.

In 2006, Gov. George Ryan was jailed on federal corruption charges. Three years later, Gov. Rod Blagojevich was indicted on charges of bribery. In one instance, FBI tapes revealed Blagojevich requesting $100,000 in the form of a campaign contribution from a horse racing track owner in exchange for huge industry subsidies.

The push in Illinois to increase direct contribution limits to offset the flow of outside corporate spending threatens to undo the regulations prompted by the scandals, say advocates for reform.

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday reversed a Montana law that banned outside spending by corporations. But state and local governments are free to set limits on donations made directly to candidates.

In March, Connecticut lawmakers considered a proposal eliminating certain limits on campaign fundraising. But the initiative did not make it through the state legislature.

Malloy, the first governor elected through a publicly financed campaign, said that the proposal would level the playing field for other publicly financed candidates that face wealthy super PACs.

In Los Angeles, a city ethics commission is considering a proposal to raise the 27-year-old campaign donation caps for local elections. City Council President Herb Wesson feared that without raising the contribution limits, city candidates could not compete against the unlimited spending from the super PACs.

According to the Los Angeles Times, he told a panel in December, “If it were me, I'd say let's have no limits at all but just report [donations] faster.”

More changes could be on the way, according to Trey Grayson, the director of Harvard University’s Institute for Politics and former Kentucky secretary of state.

Super PAC spending in upcoming local elections, according to Grayson, could spur state legislators to raise or eliminate campaign contribution limits and increase disclosure laws. Rather than being proactive, lawmakers will likely react once they see how outside groups are affecting state and local races, he said.

Super PAC Liberty for All played a huge role in a Kentucky GOP primary in May, spending about twice as much as any candidate for the 4th District state House seat. With the help of super PAC funding, tea party candidate Thomas Massie beat six Republicans to win the nomination with 45 percent of the vote.

Now, state lawmakers are pushing to more than double the campaign contribution limits for individuals, from $1,000 to $2,500 per candidate.

According to a report from the National Conference on State Legislatures on the 2011-2012 election cycle, just four states have no limits on candidate contributions — Missouri, Oregon, Utah and Virginia.

Seven states — Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas — restrict contributions by unions and corporations, but allow unlimited contributions from individuals.