Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Slay the Monster

Today's news is full of stories about Roland Burris and his fundraising efforts on behalf of ex-Gov Rod Blagojevich. Rod's issues always seemed to center around campaign finance -- how he could get as much money as possible from whomever would give it to him -- but he was hardly alone. George Ryan's corruption, too, involved shaking down state employees, contractors, building leasers, and others for campaign donations. Indeed, many of the corruption problems in Illinois have traced back to campaign finance. Former Chicago Alderman Arenda Troutman was sentenced yesterday to 4 years in prison for demanding bribes and campaign cash from developers. Troutman, who memorably was caught on tape declaring "all alderman, all politicians, are hos," offered up another pithy one yesterday, telling Federal Judge Ruben Castillo, “With God as my witness, I am not a monster.”

Troutman is right -- she's not the monster. The monster is Illinois' unregulated campaign finance system, which time and again rewards those who can convince donors to write enormous checks to their campaign fund. Rod Blagojevich won re-election by outspending his Republican opponent by nearly $20 million dollars -- a more than 3:1 advantage. Much of that advantage came from enormous campaign donations from contractors, board and commission appointees, people who wanted state jobs, people who wanted bills signed, people who, in short, wanted something specific in return. And because our unregulated campaign finance system allows unlimited donations, it all looked legal until long after the fact, long after the polls were closed and the winners were sworn in for another term in office.

Last year's Pay-to-Play ban was the first time in state history that Illinois acknowledged that some donations are inherently troubling. Given our culture, donations from state contractors to the official who oversees the contract cannot but give at least the appearance of impropriety, and all too often, we know, those donations stem from outright criminal intentions. But the federal corruption charges now pending against Rod Blagojevich, that he shook down a hospital awaiting a state grant and that he pressured an interest group to "donate" so that he would sign a bill they favored -- show that the problems are more pervasive. The monster is bigger than donations from state contractors.

We could not disagree more with Senate President John Cullerton, who yesterday declared that disclosure was sufficient to clean up state politics. Illinois has tried disclosure alone for the last 34 years, and the experiment has yielded George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich, Arenda Troutman and literally dozens of others. It is now abundantly clear that the problems we face demand more stringent disinfectants. Forty-five other states have campaign contribution limits. Federal candidates face limits. Limits are not perfect; no system among mortals is. But limits is a step in the right direction.

It is high time to slay the monster. The legislature can do that this year by enacting campaign finance reform.

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