Friday, June 30, 2006

If Kinko's charged a dollar a page...

… nobody would go to Kinko’s. But what if you HAD to go to Kinko’s to get a copy of the document you wanted?

For years now, ICPR has tracked candidate ads on Chicago television stations. We do this partly by taping broadcasts and partly by obtaining the contracts from the 9 largest stations in the Chicago market. Stations are required by federal law to make copies of these contracts available to the public, though the law also allows stations to charge a reasonable copying fee. Which quickly raises the question, what’s reasonable?

Actual fees charged by the stations vary wildly. Some are free. Others are ten cents a page, or twenty cents a page. But one is fully a dollar a page. That’s out of the ballpark of most stations; it’s also much more than what commercial copiers charge, and it’s more than most governmental agencies charge for copies.

Today’s papers carry at least two stories on a challenge to the DuPage Election Commission’s practice of charging $1 per page for copies requested by the public. High copying fees prevent the public from gaining access to records that are supposed to be available to the public, not just to see, not just to read, but to have, to write on, to mark up, to study. High copying fees, as the people quoted in these stories so eloquently describe, work against the purpose of public access to records.

We stand with those who ask the DuPage Election Commission to lower their fees. And we also hope that the people at WBBM (CBS-Channel 2) in Chicago will re-examine what it actually costs them to make copies of ad contracts.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Limiting Limits

Today’s Supreme Court ruling in the Vermont campaign finance case shows strong legal support for reasonable campaign finance reform, and it points the way to enacting such reforms here in Illinois.

Vermont’s law, perhaps the toughest in the nation, is unlike any measure now pending in Illinois. Vermont’s law limited giving to as little as $200, which, the Court noted, “are the lowest in the Nation.” It applied the same limits to individuals, parties and PACs. Limits applied to all giving over a two-year period, rather than applying for each election. Although the law never took effect, the Court suggested that it would have applied to expenses incurred by volunteers even if not reimbursed by a campaign. And perhaps most importantly, it restricted total expenditures. Sizing up all of these restrictions, a plurality of the Court concluded that the Act was unconstitutional.

Showing how complicated this kind of law can be, however, the ruling was not a majority opinion. Four justices (Breyer, Roberts, Alito and Kennedy) agreed that, while some limits are allowable, these are not. Three others (Souter, Stevens, and Ginsburg) concluded not only that some limits are allowable, but that the appellate court should study this further; Justice Stevens suggested he would have upheld these limits. Only two justices, Scalia and Thomas, argued that the Vermont law and also every other restriction on campaign finances are unconstitutional. Even though they could not agree on a single reason, a majority of the justices agreed that Vermont’s laws went too far. As a result of this fracture, the practical impact of this case may be limited.

Illinois, without any limits, remains the Wild West of campaign finance in the USA. Donors can and do give six- and even seven-figure contributions to support a single candidate. The impact of these large contributions cannot be underestimated. Large donors continue to enjoy practical benefits and access unavailable to ordinary citizens. Illinois continues to need campaign finance reforms, and this ruling shows how to craft reforms that respect free speech.

Reform proposals here would likely not run afoul of today’s ruling. Limits legislation now pending in the state legislature, including HB 743 and SB 1822, set higher overall limits, apply limits per election rather than per biennium, allow larger contributions from PACs than from individuals, and higher still from parties; and do not touch overall spending limits. Indeed, Illinois’ current proposals would do nothing more than bring our state into the 20th Century of campaign finance laws.

For a copy of the Supreme Court ruling in Randall v Sorrell, click here (PDF)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Da Mare, Listlessly

Yesterday’s revelation that the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs kept a 60-page clout list, detailing over 5,000 applicants and their political sponsors, has provoked outrage and indignation in the press and even around the water cooler (and not just at our office). In size and scope, this list dwarfs any previously disclosed lists maintained by either Gov. George Ryan or Gov. Rod Blagojevich. While there is broad consensus that patronage hiring and civil service should not mix, maybe it’s worth exploring why.

Mark Brown’s column today notes that patronage hiring “gives political leaders too much power.” Without disagreeing, I think that condenses the effect too much. Here’s my unpacking of the problems of patronage (in no particular order):

* Telling staff that the quality of their work is meaningless cheapens their labor and their lives. This is equally true of front line workers and supervisors.

* Putting workers in a position where they believe that their jobs depend on political work coerces them to forfeit their political independence

* Showing taxpayers that government will waste their money for private, electoral gains fuels backlash at government efforts for the common good.

* Locking a block of voters and campaign workers to a particular candidate dilutes the deliberative function of elections.

* Giving one set of candidates ready access to campaign cash and workers (I won’t use the euphemism “volunteers” in this context) disadvantages competing candidates and ideas and perverts the outcome of elections.

I’m sure there are other reasons, that’s what I came up with in 15-minuts of keyboarding. And we should distinguish between a system of tracking all applicants and their rec. letters from what we seem to have here, which tracks only those applicants with politically-connected sponsors. Handing the public payroll over to political insiders is a horrible idea for many, many reasons.

On an unrelated note, I would hope that Corporation Counsel Mara Georges will finally stop saying that the Shakman Decree is outdated and should be dumped, and that the aldermen will stop complaining about the cost of the Shakman monitor. At the very least, the list shows that the City needs a refresher on Shakman compliance. If Chicago's aldermen really want to stop acting like sheep, they'll demand an end to these abusive hiring practices.

UPDATE: The Tribune has posted the list here. (pdf; zoom in 200% to read the names)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

State of Economic Interest

Federal office holders have just released their statements of economic interest, and the reports give the public a good view of their elected official’s finances. These reports show major financial interests, and also give the value of the interest, so that the public has a better sense of where conflicts of interest might arise, and which matters may present more conflict to the official than others. If an official, for instance, derives a few thousand dollars a year from a particular company, they might be tempted to give that company special treatment. If they get hundreds of thousands of dollars from that holding, the pressure might be all the more intense.

Illinois officials also file statements of economic interest, but while the name is the same, the content is not. The forms are available for download here, but all they list is the name of the interest, with no specific information on the value of the investment or the income earned from it. In short, Illinois’ statements of economic interest provide very little meaningful information for Illinois voters. Many electeds list simply that the question does not apply to them.

Changing the forms has proven to be a tough hill to climb. While reformers have recently succeeded in getting the forms posted to the Internet, measures to improve the content have stalled in Rules. That reform, to paraphrase Cubs fans, apparently has to wait until next year.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Prison Cheese

Today’s news is full of stories about corruption in Illinois, but lest anyone think we’re the bottom of the bucket in American politics, don’t forget that our neighbors to the north are also watching an on-going series of live courtroom dramas. Convicted legislators? They've got’em. Convicted lobbyists? Got those, too. Today’s papers report on the conviction of a state purchasing manager for directing contracts to the governor’s campaign contributors, over-ruling the recommendation of the proper evaluation committee.

So who’s more corrupt? If we’re just looking at state government, it’s probably a toss up. Throwing in local government (Laski’s sentencing today is just gravy), I think we win. Or lose, depending on your perspective.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Governor, Listlessly

The Blagojevich administration has taken an unusual approach to their jobs scandal. When the first story broke two weeks ago, the governor’s spokespeople admitted to tracking applications by sponsor, but denied that they used this system to fill non-political positions. Then, when a copy of the list appeared on Rich Miller’s blog, they changed their tune, instead insisting that the list wasn’t theirs.

Then it turned out there’s another list out there. Only AP seems to have this one, and they haven’t released the whole thing, but this list apparently includes career service positions that are supposed to be shielded from political influence, the names of applicants, and the signatures of high-level administration officials who approved the hire.

Maybe the administration thought the first story was based on these lists. Maybe there are other lists that haven’t made their way to the press yet. But the problem that the governor faces now is one of credibility. For the first three years in office, he routinely insisted that he was changing the way business was done. Reform and renewal were in nearly every speech and every press quip. These lists suggest his actions were not up to his speechifying.

As new scandals have broken, the governor has responded by dialing back his reform rhetoric. He hasn’t read from the old script in about a year now. When he speaks of reform, it’s usually in the past tense, as in, he worked on the 2003 Ethics Act, or he proposed campaign finance reform. He has stopped outlining his vision for changing the culture of Illinois politics.

There is still time. The governor should come clean about how his administration has filled positions, allowing staff to talk about the process by which they got jobs and releasing any documentation they have to support the process they instituted. Certainly it makes sense for the governor’s policy advisors to share his political philosophy, and showing that political influence was limited to these positions would be a fine thing to do. If, however, there is a gulf between what they said they were doing and what they actually did, they should own up to their failings and discuss how they think they have since changed the process for the better.

On the other hand, if the gulf is more of an ocean, then battening down the hatches may make sense. Or, if he’s worried about federal investigations, as today’s Ray Coleman story suggests, then maybe he should be extra careful. But if this governor has really taken steps he can be proud of to reform state hiring, now is the time to discuss those in public.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Don't Touch that Dial

Candidates in the March Primary election spent nearly $12 million to broadcast more than 8,500 TV ads to the Chicago market. But while the primary ended on March 21, the ads have not. Gov. Blagojevich, in a highly unusual move, continued to air spots after the primary. The third wave of these post-primary ads begins today.

Over the course of the primary, four TV station in Chicago billed over $1 million for political ads. WLS (ABC- Channel 7) led the pack with $4.2 million in billings, followed by WMAQ (NBC – Channel 5) with $3.0 million.

Ironically, the top spenders on ads lost the primary. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Gidwitz spent over $2.4 million during calendar year 2006, only to finish fourth in his race. Cook County Board President hopeful Forest Claypool spent $1.9 million, but he, too, came up short at the ballot box. Gov. Blagojevich was the only of the top three spenders who won his primary.

Immediately after his primary victory, Gov. Blagojevich continued to air spots. These post-primary ads have come in waves, the third of which begins today.

• The first wave, which began immediately after the primary and continued through mid-April, featured 30-second spots. In frequency and distribution, this wave was largely similar to the pattern he established in the primary, with a high concentration in news and public affairs and daytime programming.
• The second wave, which began in late-April and ran for about three weeks, featured 15-second spots bookended during ad breaks.
• The third wave, which begins today and runs at least through next week, appears similar in placement to the second. We don’t know how broadly this third buy will run; contracts at WLS call for $136K worth of ads.

All told, the governor has now spent more after the primary than before; this calendar year, he has spent nearly $4 million running ads in the Chicago market alone.

Charts summarizing the ad buys will be available through ICPR’s homepage later today.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Wanna Bet There's a Connection?

The gambling boats weren’t happy about having to subsidize horse tracks when the bill was filed, they didn’t like it any more when it passed, and when it was signed into law, they liked it even less. Now, they’re suing to block collection of the subsidy. Coverage has focused on the fissure in the gambling community between boats and tracks. But as we’ve pointed out before, there’s one other angle. Gov. Blagojevich has eschewed boat money in the past, taking nary a dime from the casinos. But he has taken money from the tracks, over $250K between 2001 and 2004. Check out our issue briefing for the details.