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Eight Easy Pieces?

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This wasn't supposed to be the year that a campaign-finance-reform bill passed in Illinois. But that didn't stop the Illinois Campaign Finance Reform Caucus--ICFRC, or "ick-frick" to its less reverent members--from drawing up an eight-point agenda "to reduce the influence of big money in [state] politics." The informal group's members--which include Common Cause, Citizen Action, Cook County clerk David Orr, United We Stand America, Protestants for the Common Good, the Dollars and Democracy Project, and the League of Women Voters--agreed that:

¥ Everyone who gives more than $149 to a candidate should disclose his or her employer and any interests in contracts from the office being sought.

¥ All disclosure reports should be made available in electronic format and on the Internet.

¥ People should be able to look at disclosure reports without telling anything about themselves. (State law has required anyone who wants to look at a state disclosure report to fill out form D-3, giving his or her name and reason for looking at the report.)

¥ Contributions from individuals, companies, and other politicians should be capped.

¥ Contributions from regulated public utilities and gambling interests should be prohibited.

¥ Politicians should not be allowed to make personal use of campaign funds.

¥ Overall campaign spending should be capped.

¥ Ultimately campaigns should be paid for with tax dollars rather than potentially compromising private donations.

Almost all of the content of the first three planks will become law later this summer when Governor Edgar signs House Bill 729--at which point Illinois may no longer be notorious for having the most lax campaign finance regulations in the country. Most important, the contributions and expenditures of every candidate and political committee in Illinois will be placed in a searchable database on the World Wide Web.

The victory came as the result of an inside-outside strategy, with some coalition members blasting away in public and others negotiating behind the scenes. Jim Howard, a former radio journalist who became Common Cause's Illinois executive director on March 24, thinks a key step in the process was discovering that the group had some real muscle. "We sent a newsletter to our members [there are about 10,000] asking them to call their state senators. A week or so later I walked into Senator Cullerton's office. 'Are you the one responsible for these phone calls?' his secretary asked, not smiling. 'We got 200 in two days!'

"We thought we'd do the kind of lobbying lobbyists do when they want to pass something," says Howard--working behind the scenes rather than holding attack press conferences. Even so it was a near thing. "The vehicle bills [to which reform measures could be attached] were dead at least twice before we got this through."

Howard calls the result "no more and no less significant than an infant's first step. Illinois is so far behind we have to take several steps to get back to zero." But Republican orthodoxy holds that this step--comprehensive disclosure--should be the last. If voters know who's backing the candidates, the Republicans say, they can vote against contributors they dislike. One statehouse lobbyist was heard to say, "People need to understand that when they vote for a candidate they're really voting for a set of contributors. They should consider which set of contributors they want to support and vote accordingly."

Common Cause lobbyist David Starrett says that the idea that disclosure alone suffices is "hogwash." After all, he says, the state shuts down restaurants that poison their customers. "We don't just disclose how many people died and leave it at that!" Is the integrity of our political system less important?

With disclosure largely taken care of, next year the coalition can tackle the harder issues of limits, maybe even public financing. Actually "next year" might start as early as July, when five members are appointed to a state senate task force on campaign finance with a staff and a budget. "We would like them to finish up some details on the disclosure, tackle personal use and maybe a gift ban," says Starrett. And in the 1998 session? "We'll push it [the eight-point agenda] as far as we can. An election year is our best shot. Then we're in a position to tell our members how people voted. There has to be a perceived consequence [at the ballot box] for voting against reform."

If all this sounds optimistic, remember that nothing was supposed to happen this year either. o --H.H.

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