OPINION: End corruption - take corporate money out of politics

The brazen corruption of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is detestable. But some would ask - what's the big deal? Chicago is renowned the world over for corruption by machine politics, gangsters and moneyed interests. Corruption is rampant in U.S. politics and is 'American as apple pie.'

The larger issue then is the unregulated corporate money that has corrupted politics generally in the state government and that gave rise to the “pay to play” system. Without a change in that system there will be more George Ryan’s (previous governor now in prison) and Blagojevich’s.

That system is one of unregulated campaign finances, in which those seeking state contracts or jobs (the pay to play) are able to contribute without restriction. Illinois is one of only six states — along with Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Virginia — that has no limits on contributions. Nearly all states and the District of Columbia impose some restrictions on the size of campaign contributions, and most ban direct giving.

Some have tended to focus on the large contributions of a few unions. But the overwhelming source of money given to Blagojevich is from private corporations and wealthy individuals.

Blagojevich raised $58 million in eight years – the most ever by a candidate for governor. The Chicago Tribune said 75% of 235 contributions for $25,000 came from people or organizations that had received favors from Blagojevich, such as contracts, board appointments, favorable policy positions and regulatory actions.

The Sun-Times said 20 companies gave a combined $925,500. These firms were paid or had contracts for $365 million by state government.

In her testimony to the Illinois House Special Investigative Committee, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform director Cindi Canary said, “Illinois places no limits on the size of campaign contributions and no restrictions on the transfer of money between committees.

“Instead of limits and restrictions, Illinois requires only disclosure. If a public official wants to leverage governmental authority to generate campaign contributions or if a private party wants to use campaign contributions to influence a public official, Illinois’ campaign finance law does nothing to prevent attempts at corruption.”

ICPR supports HB 3497 (Osterman-Coulson), which would create a system of limits for all candidates, parties, and PACs for all state and local offices in Illinois.

A new Ethics Law, while limited, will go into effect in 2009 to curb “pay-to-play” deals. The law will prohibit companies that do business with the state from giving money to state officers who oversee their bids or contracts. This is the law, which President Elect Barack Obama strongly urged State Senate President Emil Jones to support, and which Blagojevich opposed. There is strong speculation that Blagojevich had been rushing to collect large donations before the law went into effect, and the “auctioning” of the U.S. Senate seat was part of that effort.

Ultimately what's needed is a system of publicly financing of all elections - federal to state to local.