• Special interests pour millions of dollars into Illinois campaigns
• There is no limit on contributions in statehouse races
• AARP and the CHANGE Illinois coalition are pushing campaign finance reforms
A decade-long freeze on electric rate increases was about to expire. Consumer and advocacy groups, including AARP, wanted to extend it. The utilities industry wanted to end it and poured more than $1.3 million into the campaigns of Illinois lawmakers. Despite some concessions to consumers, the freeze was lifted in 2007.
The result? Illinois customers now pay 40 to 300 percent more for electricity.
“Large campaign contributions are putting the special interests before the people’s interests,” said Bob Gallo, senior state director for AARP Illinois. “Business as usual is preventing progress as it should be—passing a law to limit campaign contributions is the right move for Illinois.”
The federal government limits contributions to members of Congress. Illinois does not limit contributions in statehouse races.
Consider these examples of consumer issues that have attracted substantial campaign contributions.
Payday loans:Illinois politicians led the nation in contributions from the payday lender industry—$2.5 million from 1999 to 2006, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Consumer advocates’ attempts to close legal loopholes allowing interest rates of between 400 and 1,200 percent have repeatedly failed.
Cable television: Candidates got $2.5 million in 2005-2006 from competing interests—telephone companies trying to break into the cable TV market and the cable companies trying to protect their local monopolies. The legislature allowed telephone giants like AT&T access to the whole state, effectively deregulating the market, by overriding previous laws that had left such decisions in the hands of local jurisdictions.
Gambling: Casino and horseracing interests contributed $3.5 million to elected officials in a three-year period before bills to expand casino gambling and allow slot machines at race tracks were passed.
Horseracing: Industries contributed more than $400,000 before lawmakers passed a horseracing aid bill allowing tracks to televise their races and accept bets placed worldwide.
Medical malpractice: Competing medical and legal interests battling over lawsuit damage caps donated nearly $10 million. The legislature agreed to limit certain damage awards.
Liquor distribution: After $1.4 million in industry donations from 1997 to 2000, lawmakers passed a law protecting liquor firms by restricting the ability of suppliers to change distributors.
Health care:With the introduction of a bill called the Individual Health Insurance Fairness Law, which would require insurers to spend at least 85 percent of their premium dollars on patient care, the insurance industry lobby money is pouring into the statehouse. Actual donation amounts and recipients will not be available for months.
“Illinois is the Wild West of campaign finance,” said Dick Simpson, head of the University of Illinois-Chicago’s political science department.
Simpson calculates the overall “corruption tax” in Illinois—including influence peddling—to be about $500 million a year, according to a recent report by his department.
Now citizens seem to be saying ‘enough’
In the wake of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest and impeachment for allegedly trying to sell a U.S. Senate vacancy for campaign money, finance reform efforts are gaining ground. With other organizations, AARP is at the helm of a coalition, CHANGE Illinois.
Rallying its 1.8 million members, AARP Illinois is holding public forums to press for reform. It is also appearing before reform committees set up by the legislature and governor to testify about the need to impose limits on contributions in state elections.
AARP Illinois supports legislation that closely mirrors federal regulations limiting individual and political action committee contributions as well as “bundled” contributions—in which people gather the contributions of others into one large package. It also supports limits on the use of campaign “war chests” in future years.
“We need to change things,” Gallo said. “We need to do it now.”
Ernest Torriero is a freelance writer living in Oak Park, Ill.