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Our view: Put more teeth in campaign finance laws

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 9:46 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 9:50 p.m. CDT

Money seems to play a bigger role in political campaigns than it ever has before. Yet the state of Illinois places few restrictions on political donations and seems to take little interest in making candidates comply with contribution disclosure rules.

The most recent example is the case of Eric Kellogg, whose campaign committee only recently released three years’ worth of reports on donations to his campaign fund.

Kellogg is mayor of Harvey, and his campaign donors include city employees who have been allowed to remain in their jobs despite being caught up in scandals, according to the Chicago Tribune, which recently wrote an investigative story about the troubled community.

Kellogg’s campaign committee might be the most blatant offender, but his three-year delinquency – which likely would have continued indefinitely were it not for the news coverage – is indicative of just how little effort goes into enforcing campaign disclosure laws.

Our state’s laws on political contributions are fairly loose – individuals may not contribute more than $5,300 to a single candidate, businesses max out at $10,500, political committees and political action committees can give as much as $52,600. Candidates and their families can make unlimited contributions to their campaign committee.

State election code lays out the many procedures for reporting contributions. Most campaign committees are required to file quarterly reports, with donations of more than $1,000 to be reported within five days. When the rules are not followed … .

Well, in the case of Kellogg, it’s clear nothing happened. The law says the Illinois State Board of Elections is supposed to hold hearings in response to complaints and can assess civil penalties. But the penalties are generally waived in favor of warnings, which come only if a report is made. The election board is supposed to send violation notices to committees that do not file their reports on time, but how effective they are in following up is questionable.

Campaign disclosure laws need not be draconian – that might actually discourage some from running for office – but they also should not be so toothless that they can be flouted with impunity. 

Public exposure of neglect in filing disclosures, either through news reporting or other means, can create public pressure for something to be done. But another powerful incentive for people to follow the rules is to have real penalties in place if the rules are broken. After an act of the state legislature, Illinois took similar action in regard to the Freedom of Information Act, moves that were done in response to a culture of corruption that had grown in state politics and led to the state’s two previous governors being convicted of federal crimes.

Knowing who supports local and statewide candidates for office is another step toward open and honest government. Strengthening the means of enforcement of campaign finance disclosure laws would be a logical step in making that possible.

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