(The Center Square) – On Oct. 19, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan gave a state political party he controls $3.5 million.
It came from the Chicago Democrat’s uncontested political campaign that had seen donations, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, reported just days prior. Once in the hands of the political committee, those millions would be funneled to competitive state Democratic races in amounts far exceeding what those candidates could accept from their neighbors and it’s entirely legal.
Unlike any other state, Illinois’ political leaders have a mechanism that allows them outsized influence in campaign spending compared to regular citizens or businesses looking to help their favored candidates.
An Illinois candidate can receive a maximum of $5,800 from an individual, $11,600 from a corporation, labor organization, and $57,800 from a candidate political committee or political action committee.
Outside of a party primary, a political party committee such as the Democratic Party of Illinois or the Illinois Republican Party has no limit on donations to a candidate.
While ten other states have no limits on contributions to a candidate for office at all, Illinois has a mechanism that unlocks unlimited spending to a candidate once the candidate or an independent group either donates or loans the politician’s committee more than $250,000 or $100,000 for non-statewide candidates.
“There is no other state that, when a candidate self-funds or contributes a certain amount to their campaign, all the caps get blown,” said Alisa Kaplan, Executive Director for Reform for Illinois, who authored a report on the best ways to fix the loophole.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that self-funding a campaign is a right protected under the 1st Amendment. Kaplan and RFI Policy Analyst Isaac Wink say the provision, while sometimes used as intended under Governors J.B. Pritzker and Bruce Rauner before him, is also ripe for abuse.
“A provision that was intended to level the playing field between candidates is being used to do the opposite, magnifying the power of a few special interests and wealthy donors and magnifying the power of a few party leaders,” Kaplan said.
Used in tandem with unlimited political party transfers to individual candidates, party leaders like House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady are able to break their donation cap and open up a channel of what RFI called “uncapped megadonor and special interest contributions” into the state’s campaigns. Kaplan said the politicians whose caps are removed are typically not contested in the election cycle.
RFI’s report offers a handful of options Illinois lawmakers could do to close the loophole:
- Repeal the law, restoring caps on all candidates and leaving the unlimited spending to non-coordinating independent expenditure groups.
- Raise the fundraising limits, making the need for unlimited funding less common.
- Raise the amount to break the cap, making it more difficult—though certainly not impossible—to exploit.
- Remove the “loan” provision in the cap, triggering unlimited donation amounts only if the candidate donates to their own campaign. A loan would increase the cost of triggering the threshold for a candidate, who could otherwise be paid back the amount, often with interest.
- Limit party money to individual candidates, which would cut off the other end of the issue and reduce the incentive for a candidate to act as a rainmaker for the party’s more vulnerable members.
- Create a Clean Elections program, which would provide matching public funds for small donor contributions or even vouchers that voters can give to a candidate. This, Kaplan said, would reduce a candidate’s dependency on party heads or wealthy donors.