Campaign-finance reform bill stalls during big-money Illinois governor’s race

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The gubernatorial race between Gov. Bruce Rauner (left) and Democratic rival J.B. Pritzker could become the most expensive race in American history. | Sun-Times photos

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SPRINGFIELD — This year’s race for Illinois governor between uber-wealthy candidates could be the most expensive in U.S. history, and some say it illustrates the need for a campaign-finance system that isn’t rigged in favor of the rich, according to critics pushing for a system that would match small donations with public funds.

The small-donor matching program won approval in the Illinois Senate last year, but its chances are bleak in the state House, despite the attention given to two inordinately wealthy candidates who are financing their campaigns with millions of dollars of their own money.

Billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker has already contributed $76.5 million to his campaign and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has given $50 million to his own. They are on track to surpass the record-high $280 million spent on California’s 2010 governor’s race, when Democrat Jerry Brown defeated Republican Meg Whitman.

Critics say the Rauner-Pritzker race is a great example of how Illinois’ campaign finance system discourages diversity among candidates and limits ballot access for hopefuls not beholden to well-heeled special interests.

RELATED: • Governor’s race price tag: $150 million — and it’s only half over • Battle of the big money candidates is now officially on

“Being rich shouldn’t give you any special entitlements to claim power to run things,” said David Melton, senior adviser of campaign finance watchdog Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Under the proposed plan, qualifying candidates could use matching public funds for donations of up to $150. Contributions would be capped at $500, and money from lobbyists or interest groups would be barred.

A House committee heard testimony this month but didn’t vote, and the legislation is not positioned for approval before the General Assembly’s scheduled May 31 adjournment.

But the governor’s race will change the conversation, according to one sponsor, Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat who finished second to Pritzker in the Democratic primary after running as a middle-class candidate dependent on small donors.

State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, speaks at a Sun-Times forum in January. | Sun-Times files

State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, speaks at a Sun-Times forum in January. | Sun-Times files

“Four years ago, Bruce Rauner spent a record amount of money, and now that record is going to be shattered,” Biss said. “This is a critical way to transform our democracy and the voices of ordinary people who are drowned out now because of the role that big money plays in politics.”

Pritzker’s spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh would not say whether Pritzker would support small-donor matching statewide, but she said Pritzker is committed to campaign finance reform, including instituting “corporate and PAC contribution limits.” The Rauner campaign didn’t reply to a request for comment.

The idea is modeled after New York City’s small-donor program for municipal elections, which began in the late 1980s. Los Angeles and the District of Columbia have similar small-donor programs.

Ian Vandewalker, a campaign finance reform expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, agreed that the plan can combat the “money arms race in politics” by opening the door for bright candidates who can draw a following but lack cash.

But he cautioned that the plan wouldn’t be effective without lowering contribution limits for all candidates, whether they participate or not. Privately funded statewide candidates can take up to $222,000 from a political party, far higher than contribution limits at the federal level. Candidates in a race can also bypass the limits and start raising unlimited funds when one person puts up $250,000 of his own money in a governor’s race, as is the case this election cycle.

To encourage participation, Vandewalker said the law would also have to curtail contribution limits on private funding to make the proposal’s $500 donation limit appear like a reasonable alternative. That would be a tough sell in a state that only began limiting contributions in response to the fundraising of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted and sent to prison in part for his fundraising methods.

The public would also have to come to terms with the cost, which caps spending at $50 million per election cycle, or .05 percent of the state budget. Biss conceded that with the state in billions of dollars in debt, any new spending is viewed skeptically.

But Cook County Clerk David Orr said without such a system in place, competing ideas and creative policy proposals will be squeezed out by wealthy candidates who self-finance, or those who owe their success to special interests and other rich donors.

“You can’t have a representative government when money drowns out ordinary voices,” said Orr, who oversees Chicago elections. “Our democracy is in danger.”

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