Contribution caps aren’t slowing political cash

click to enlarge Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan
Back when the reformers demanded that state campaign contributions be capped, they said it would limit the dollars flowing into Illinois political funds.

But, overall, contributions have only barely decreased from four years ago, according to a search of the State Board of Elections’ database. That may have as much to do with the economy these days compared to what it was back then, when Illinois’ unemployment rate was half what it is now. According to the search, about $55.6 million was contributed to campaigns during the last six months of 2011, while about $57.3 million went to campaigns during the same period four years earlier.

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan raised a total of $2.6 million for the three campaign funds he controls in just the last three months. Madigan now has a total of $4 million in cash, which puts him far ahead of anybody else in politics. Four years ago at this time (the same point in our national and state election cycles), Madigan had $1.3 million in cash reserves. There were no contribution caps four years ago.

And a whole bunch of money is avoiding the new contribution limits by being spread around to newly formed political action committees and to some little local committees that have never before seen much, if any, activity.

For a somewhat extreme example of what appears to be happening in our capped environment, let’s take a look at contributions made during the latest quarter by Ken and Anne Griffin, a high-powered, wealthy Chicago couple who gave heavily to the House Republicans in 2010.

Before we go further, though, I want to make it very clear here that nothing the Griffins did was somehow illegal or even unethical. It all appears to be well within the law. I only point this out to show how silly it is to think that we can cap all the money coming into the system. Money always finds a way around caps. Always. Individuals are now capped at $5,000 when giving to candidates, but individuals can give $10,000 to political action committees and political party committees, and PACs can contribute $50,000 to candidates. You can probably see where this is going.

The Griffins made $305,000 in contributions between Dec. 29 and Jan. 6, with the vast majority of their giving confined to the last three days of 2011.

A bunch of that cash went to small, Downstate Republican Party county committees. For instance, the Griffins contributed the maximum $10,000 each to the Stark County Republican Central Committee on Dec. 29. The tiny county party reported raising just $5,700 in cash over the last three years until the Griffins came along. Republican parties in Christian, Jefferson, Douglas, Logan and Richland all were showered with similar Griffin beneficence. Political party committees like those can contribute unlimited amounts to primary candidates.

But it wasn’t just a bunch of out-of-the-way county parties that benefitted from the Griffins’ largesse. A group called Empowering Children PAC was formed on Dec. 6 of last year and received $10K each from the Griffins this month. The two officers of the new committee are Andy McKenna (the former state GOP chairman and gubernatorial candidate) and John Tillman (who runs the Illinois Policy Institute).

Mary Beth Weiss of Hinsdale also contributed $10,000 to Empowering Children PAC, and she gave another $10,000 to Illinois Liberty PAC, which had previously been chaired by the Policy Institute’s Tillman but is now chaired by former GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Proft. The Griffins gave Illinois Liberty PAC their standard $10,000 each on Jan. 3. 

The House Republican Leadership Committee was started Nov. 1 and raised $20,000 from, you guessed it, the Griffins. The fund is controlled by House GOP Leader Tom Cross. Another Cross-controlled group, Citizens to Change Illinois, took in $27,000 in the last quarter, with $20,000 coming from the Griffins.

And then there’s the brand new We Mean Business PAC, which sources say was started at the behest of Ty Fahner, whose Civic Committee is pushing major pension reforms. The PAC raised almost $143,000 on Dec. 29 alone. 

Got all that? And there’s lots more, but my space is limited.

This stuff was a whole lot easier to track before Illinois was reformed. Nowadays, you need a rapidly updatable scorecard to keep track of all the moves. 

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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