Editorial writers, crusading columnists, and reformers say it all the time: Illinois is one of only a small handful of states that does not regulate campaign contributions.

That's technically true, but you might be surprised at how little some other states actually regulate those contributions.

Governor Pat Quinn's independent reform commission has recommended that Illinois adopt the same basic contribution limits for individuals and political action committees as the federal government. But if contribution limits are supposed to get the influence of money out of politics, they've failed miserably in Washington, DC, where money has become an obsession and that obsession rules all.

According to a March analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), some states have few campaign-contribution restrictions. Still others have much more stringent caps than proposed by the governor's reform commission.

For instance, neighboring Iowa has no limit on individual contributions to candidates and doesn't cap state-party contributions, political-action-committee (PAC) contributions, or labor-union contributions to candidates. However, Iowa does prohibit direct contributions by corporations. Here is a rundown of some other states:

  • Texas, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota prohibit direct corporate and union contributions to candidates, but have no limits on any other contributions.
  • Indiana restricts contributions by corporations and unions to $5,000 per year for statewide candidates and $2,000 per year for all other candidates. Individual, PAC, and state-party contributions are not limited, however. Mississippi and Alabama have similar restrictions.
  • Ohio limits individual and PAC contributions to a somewhat odd $11,395.56 per candidate, per election, while capping state-party contributions to $642,709.58 for statewide candidates, $128,200.05 for state-Senate candidates, and $63,815.14 for state-House candidates. Corporate and labor-union contributions are prohibited.
  • According to the NCSL report, 13 states have no caps whatsoever on individual contributions. Even more have no limits on state-party contributions, although some states, such as Kentucky, require that candidates other than gubernatorial candidates accept no more than half of their money from the state parties. Kansas is one of a small number of states that severely restricts state-party contributions during primaries, but imposes no limit on general-election spending.
  • California's contribution limits are much higher than the proposed federal-style limits here in Illinois, perhaps reflecting its large number of big media markets and the fact that limits are indexed to inflation. California caps individual, union, and corporate contributions at $25,900 for gubernatorial candidates, $6,500 for other statewide candidates, and $3,900 for legislative candidates. PAC contributions are roughly double those limits. But last month, California's Fair Political Practices Commission reported that candidates have still managed to raise almost $1.1 billion since the caps took effect in January of 2001. That total did not include independent expenditures, which would be a lot more money.
  • Florida, another large state with multiple TV markets, has a $500 across-the-board limit on campaign contributions from all sources. But recent local reporting has shown how easy it is for special interests to get around those caps via "electioneering communications organizations." One example was an alleged scheme by Anheuser-Busch to bankroll favored candidates via a police union fund.
  • The state of New York uses a mathematical formula to limit individual, PAC, and union gubernatorial-campaign contributions. New York also has a $100,000 limit on family-member contributions to legislative candidates. State-party contributions to candidates are prohibited in primaries, and unlimited in general elections. Corporations are limited to $5,000 per year in aggregate.
  • Michigan prohibits all corporate and union campaign contributions and has very low caps for all other contributions. Statewide-candidate contributions are limited to $3,400 for individuals and many PACs per election cycle. Senate-candidate contributions are capped at $1,000, and House contributions are limited to just $500. "Independent" campaign committees have much higher caps.

As you can plainly see, the range of limits is far broader than we are ever told. This issue is not as black and white as it's usually portrayed. I actually favor contribution caps, but they should either be extremely low with lots of safeguards (unlike Florida) to really stamp out the money, or high enough that every check doesn't become an obsession. Illinois Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno has proposed a $10,000 cap on individuals and PACs. That seems reasonable to me.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and TheCapitolFaxBlog.com.

Everybody at the Illinois Statehouse always says they're for a major, multi-billion-dollar public-works construction plan. The problem has been that they could never agree on how to spend the money and how to pay for the massive beast.

House Speaker Michael Madigan has taken the blame for the failure of the "capital plan" during the past couple of years, and rightly so. He used every trick in the book to block it.

Then again, if Madigan hadn't killed Rod Blagojevich's extremely loosely written capital bills, Blagojevich would've probably tried to steal every last dime. To say that there were billions of dollars in almost completely undefined spending would not be an exaggeration.

With Blagojevich gone, everybody now wants to know where Madigan is on a capital bill. And, as usual, nobody really knows what he's thinking. But lots of folks believe the tea leaves look ominous. Things just aren't going well.

Pat CollinsBy far, the most ironic aspect of this entire post-Rod Blagojevich push to reform Illinois has to be the last paragraph of Governor Pat Quinn's much-praised reform-commission report.

"All Constitutional officers should issue executive orders, comparable to George Ryan's Executive Order #2 (1999), prohibiting their campaign funds from accepting contributions from state employees under their control."

Former Governor Ryan issued that executive order because his crooked campaign fundraising operation at his old secretary of state's office had triggered a federal corruption probe, and he was looking for some political cover. That investigation, of course, eventually put Ryan in prison.

Rich MillerPat Quinn is the most popular Illinois governor in more than a decade.

A new statewide poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports found that Governor Quinn has a 61-percent job approval rating. The poll of 500 likely Illinois voters conducted on April 14 claims that Quinn's job-approval rating is five points higher than U.S. Senator Dick Durbin's 56-percent "favorable" rating, and six points lower than President Barack Obama's home state 67-percent job-approval rating. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus three percentage points.

Lisa MadiganBack in 2005, I asked House Speaker Michael Madigan why he didn't just run somebody against Governor Rod Blagojevich in the '06 Democratic primary if he was so upset at the way Blagojevich was running things.

"I did that once, and it led to 26 years of uninterrupted Republican rule," Madigan cracked.

In the early 1970s, a very young Representative Madigan was Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley's point man in the House against Daley's arch-nemesis, Democratic Governor Dan Walker. That legislative opposition led directly to Daley's forces beating Walker in the 1976 primary. Their candidate went on to lose to Republican Jim Thompson, and the GOP held onto the governor's job until Blagojevich won the 2002 campaign.

I told you that story to give you an idea how Madigan may be sizing up next year.

I've often said that I'm a reform agnostic.

It's not that I don't believe in good government. I do. Fervently.

And I most certainly don't believe as some do that voters should be given the sole responsibility to weed out the crooks and con artists. "Let the buyer beware" just isn't good enough. Rod Blagojevich's two consecutive gubernatorial campaign wins and George Ryan's earlier win proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that voters simply aren't able to handle this task on their own.

So we do need some "consumer protection" laws in Illinois. But we should also keep some important points in mind.

Whither Reform?

Both Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan have said that they'd like to see Illinois politics and government cleaned up before any deficit-closing tax increases are debated.

It's doubtful, of course, that the two men are talking about the same sort of cleanup - with Madigan coming from the old school and Quinn being the reformer for several decades.

Madigan mentioned two targets for reform the other day when talking to public television: the pension systems and the state's Purchasing Act. He didn't elaborate much. A spokesperson said ideas are currently being developed, but Madigan does want some of the state's purchasing reforms from a few years ago applied to the state pension systems.

Quinn, meanwhile, has pushed binding public referenda, campaign-contribution limits, and a whole host of other ideas that are never very popular in Springfield. Good-government groups and some newspapers have made contribution caps their top priority, partly because disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich's campaign funding apparatus was so obscene.

So, where does it go from here?

Pat QuinnThe biggest problem with passing Governor Pat Quinn's tax-hike and budget proposals is not that almost every Statehouse interest group opposes them.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, for instance, sent out a statement before Quinn had even finished his budget address to say that any state legislator who votes for the governor's proposed "pension cuts" would automatically lose the union's endorsement.

State workers are spitting mad about paying more into the pension plan and being forced to take unpaid days off.

Business groups are beside themselves about the tax hikes.

Mayors hate the idea that they won't get their usual 10-percent slice of Quinn's proposed income-tax increase.

These are very serious, almost insurmountable obstacles, of course. But they're not the worst.

The biggest hurdle, by far, is that the governor focused on a problem that he alone wants to deal with, but that nobody else really cares about.

The governor, you already know, wants to raise the state's personal income tax rate from 3 percent to 4.5 percent, but also triple the $2,000 personal exemption so that almost 5 million people will get a tax cut or pay no extra taxes. Quinn claims this is about "tax fairness" as much as it is about raising new money to close the state's $11.5-billion budget deficit.

But, seriously, when was the last time you heard anybody complain about the Illinois income tax?

At just 3 percent, Illinois has the lowest flat tax in the nation. Quinn has pushed this tax-fairness idea for decades, but almost nobody else has. Tripling the personal exemption is just not something that any legislator has ever cared much about.

Since the governor's tax proposal has no real constituency within the General Assembly, he starts out with almost no legislative allies.

Just about every member of the Illinois General Assembly has fervently campaigned to reduce the property-tax burden and increase spending for schools. Also, suburban Cook County and Chicago legislators are hearing loud and constant screams of anger from their voters about their region's super-high sales tax.

There are some very angry everyday people demanding a solution to these festering problems. Yet Quinn's budget and tax-hike proposals do nothing about any of them.

In fact, the governor's proposals may be making the political situation for incumbent legislators far worse than they would be with a more "normal" tax hike and budget fix.

For one, the governor has proposed a relatively tiny education-spending increase. That pretty much guarantees some local school districts, which are also experiencing serious problems in this economy, will have to raise property taxes even higher.

Local governments are strapped in this economy as well and are dying for money. Without help from the state via their usual share of the income-tax hike, they may also have to raise sales or property taxes.

Quinn wants to expand the state sales tax to cover items such as grooming and hygiene products, sweetened tea, and coffee drinks that are currently exempted from the full sales tax rate. That's not really a big thing, but in this sort of environment it could make for big headlines.

And, not surprisingly, legislators aren't particularly thrilled with voting for Quinn's 50-percent income-tax hike and still having to vote for well over a billion dollars in state budget cuts. Quinn's tax-exemption reform proposal took a tax hike that could've raised almost $6 billion down to only about $2.5 billion.

The governor said on Friday that he hoped he could convince the business lobby to support his tax hike by showing them how he's forcing teachers and state workers to pay more into the pension systems. But it's the height of folly to assume that the business lobby will ever get behind a tax hike.

The only groups that can be counted on to reliably support tax hikes are the very groups that Quinn has gone out of his way to whack. Public-school teachers, state workers, and people such as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley are absolutely key, and all of them are firmly in the "no" category.

I still think there will be a state tax increase in our near future. I just don't think yet that it'll be this one. Quinn has a horrific fight ahead of him.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and TheCapitolFaxBlog.com.

Bill Brady

Republican State Senator Bill Brady kicked off his new gubernatorial campaign the other day by claiming that Illinois' horrific budget deficit can be "managed." But a new report by the governor's office makes that claim even less realistic that it already was.

As you already know, Democratic Comptroller Dan Hynes has estimated the state's budget deficit could reach $9 billion next fiscal year, not including aid from the federal stimulus package. We can toss those numbers out the window now, but this is all Brady had to go on when he announced his campaign, so let's look at it anyway.

Brady told WGN Radio the day before his official campaign kickoff that the budget deficit was about $4 billion to $5 billion "on an annual basis." That's pretty much exactly what Comptroller Hynes projected. Hynes included $4 billion or so in unpaid bills from this fiscal year in his $9-billion deficit projection for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

But Brady insisted that the budget deficit could be managed. "The first thing we need to do is to deal with that $4- to $5-billion deficit. And you can manage that. When you've got a $53-plus-billion budget, you need to manage it," Brady said.

Mike QuigleyCan the votes of a handful of Chicago and Cook County residents change Illinois? We are about to find out.

Winning 22 percent of the vote is not usually considered an overwhelming mandate, but winners write the history books. And Democrat Mike Quigley's congressional-primary victory last week is already being touted as an occasion worthy of at least a chapter.

Cook County Commissioner Quigley defeated 11 candidates, including two state legislators, to win the Fifth Congressional District special primary election last Tuesday with 12,100 votes. His smart, well-managed campaign was vastly outspent by his top two opponents.

Quigley successfully tapped into rising voter anger in the wake of Rod Blagojevich's arrest, Roland Burris' U.S. Senate appointment and, most importantly, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's tax hikes and innumerable missteps.