The Players: Checking In With ICPR On Illinois' Campaign Finance Laws

Mar 31, 2016

Credit ICPR website

The state of Illinois may be running a deficit, but many of its leaders' campaign accounts are flush.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform tracks their spending, and has ideas on how to improve the system.

For this episode of The Players, your look into who's who in Illinois government and politics and waht they're up to, Statehouse Bureau Chief Amanda Vinicky talked about campaign finance and spending on the 2016 primary with ICPR's Director, Sarah Brune.

BRUNE: One thing that became very apparent in this election cycle is that there needs to be more disclosure on what campaigns are spending during the election. We actually helped pass a bill last year with bipartisan support that increased the reporting requirements for independent expenditures. So all those big ad buys you saw by Super PACS in this election, the only reason those are being disclosed was because of a change we made last year.

And actually if you check out the spending for this election for the primaries, you can see that what campaigns spend on their own candidate doesn't have to be reported until their quarterly reports. Those don't come out until April 15; for the general election they won't come out until January. I think that's a huge issue because if a committee is buying ads on behalf of its own candidate, you're not going to know how much they spent until months later.

VINICKY: What about dark money? Can you explain what it is, and what can be done about it?

BRUNE: What happens is groups that are under the tax code as 501(c)4 and 501(c)6 are technically non-profits. They're allowed to engage in a good amount of political spending. And they don't have to report their donors because they're outside of the political system.

So they're able to bundle donations from any anonymous donor and pump that money into the political system. It's really frustrating when you see that type of spending because you don't know who is behind it, in many cases.

VINICKY: It could be an individual, or a campaign fund -- but that would have to be disclosed?

BRUNE: So when the candidate committee takes in the donation, they disclose who it comes from. So example, Citizens for Sarah Brune takes in a donation from Amanda Vinicky, that's disclosed. but if Citizens for Sarah Brune takes in a donation from Vinicky LLC or Vinicky Inc., you don't know who exactly is behind that. A lot of times these organizations have really vague names like "Opportunity for America" or something feel-good but that's very non-descriptive of who is actually supporting them. VINICKY: We saw a lot of dark money spending in this campaign cycle, right?

BRUNE: Absolutely. In Illinois the presence of dark and outside money in the political system has certainly grown in this election cycle, as well as the present of state-level Super PACS. They really became huge players in some of these key primary races.

VINICKY: Why does all of this matter?

BRUNE: I think it's really important for the voters and the general population to understand who is giving money to their candidates. And who is helping elect the people in power in this state. After Citizens United there is certainly a limit to what we can do. I'd love to see less money in the political system in general. I'd love to see a pre- Citizens United world. But that's not what we're living in. There are still things that we can do to make sure that this information is disclosed, so that reporters like yourself and as well as voters can kind of see the fact and make their own conclusions.

VINICKY: This primary cycle set some records, right?

BRUNE: Absolutely - we run a database called Illinois Sunshine, that tracks all the campaign spending in Illinois, and in 2016 there's already been over $46 million - just in Illinois. So that's contributions and expenditures by campaigns and to campaigns. Which is a mind-boggling number for state politics and for many races where the balance of power really stayed the same. So many have agreed that we say some of the most expensive state races in state history and in this primary and one can only assume that this type of spending is going to continue into the general election.