PAC challenges Illinois campaign contribution limits

February 17, 2012

By Andrew Thomason
Illinois Statehouse News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Campaign contribution limits in Illinois are being tested in federal court only a year after being enacted.

Personal PAC, a political action committee that lobbies for pro-choice candidates, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago against the Illinois State Board of Elections that says the limits on giving to political action committees (PACs) violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

All we’re asking is that we play on a level playing field and not have to run campaigns with one arm tied behind our backs with the campaign finance limits,” said Terry Cosgrove, president of Personal PAC.

Personal PAC is asking for immediate and permanent injunctions on limits to campaign contributions to PACs. State law limits giving to PACs at $10,000 for individuals, $20,000 for corporations and unions, and $50,000 for other PACs and candidates’ political committees.

A status hearing on the case was Feb. 16.

Illinois once was regarded as the “Wild West” of campaign finance law, and until 2011, had no limits on campaign contributions. Illinois’ campaign finance law was passed before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, upon which Personal PAC is basing its lawsuit. Illinois passed its campaign finance reform in 2009.

The U.S. Supreme Court determined that as long as a group was not coordinating with a candidate, it could spend an unlimited amount on campaigning for the candidate.

Personal PAC desires to exercise this First Amendment right, as articulated and guaranteed by Citizens United … to raise and spend funds for independent expenditures without contribution or spending limits,” the lawsuit said.

Twelve states allow unlimited contributions to PACs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan research group.

Kent Redfield literally wrote the book on campaign finance in Illinois. In addition to being a political science professor at University of Illinois at Springfield, Redfield authored, Money Counts: How Dollars Dominate Illinois Politics and What We Can Do About It.

Redfield called the lawsuit “the next unsettled question” in campaign finance law.

Limiting me from giving only $10,000 to Personal PAC doesn’t limit my ability to make independent expenditures,” Redfield said. “I can make $1 million of independent expenditures. And so what we’re talking about is, do I have an unlimited right to give to a group?”

Cosgrove said his organization missed out on about $100,000 in donations during 2011 because of the state’s contribution limits. The lawsuit also alleges that Personal PAC has a check donation worth $17,688.26 that will be void by May 23, 2012, if the state’s law stands.

The majority of PACs in Illinois give to candidates in the hope of gaining access to them once they are in the General Assembly, Redfield said. But for groups that lobby on controversial issues like abortion, their giving is more targeted at getting people on their side elected to office.

Redfield said that reasoning likely is why the lawsuit seeks an immediate injunction against the contribution limits and was filed before the March 20 primary.

Calls to the Illinois Attorney General’s office, which will represent the state in the case, were not returned.

Posted Feb. 17, 2012

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