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Watchdog: Illinois SuperPAC muscle not so super last fall

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SPRINGFIELD-Remember all of those annoying political television advertisements taking Chicago's airwaves by storm in the months leading up to November's elections?

Well, let's just say that if the success rate of those ads were put before a baseball Hall of Fame panel, the SuperPACs behind them would be joining the ranks of Sosa and Bonds.

The general election batting average of the SuperPACs in last fall's 31 targeted Illinois state legislative races they supplied with $1.6 million was just under .250.

While Illinois largely escaped the barrage of presidential ads last fall, several of the local legislative races and the outside money moving them along shoved their way into the state's households through phone calls, direct mailers and dreaded TV ads.

Candidates in those Senate and House races saw unprecedented amounts of spending on their behalf due to a change in the state's election code signed into law last July by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Stemming from changes at the federal level due to two 2010 Supreme Court decisions - Citizens United v. FEC ┬Čand SpeechNow v. FEC, the law gave rise to a class of campaign donors called SuperPACs that can spend unlimited amounts of "independent" expenditures on candidates of their choice.

These independent expenditures are not subject to contribution limits so long as they are not used in ways that expressly advocate for the election of a candidate or against the election of another.

Last fall's general election in Illinois saw $1.6 million in independent expenditures in targeted races for 15 House and 16 Senate seats, more than $900,000 of which was used negatively to oppose candidates, according to a January report by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The top five committees reporting the most independent expenditures, according to the report, were: JOBS PAC ($412,932), Personal PAC ($334,392), National Association of Realtors ($232,500), Liberty Principles PAC ($215,168), and GOPAC Illinois Legislative Fund ($186,524).

All told, those five committees spent the bulk of all independent expenditures while achieving success in only 12 of the 31 races they targeted. Out of all independent expenditures, the SuperPACs only had success in 19 of 77 races.

While independent expenditures only made up about 5.5% of the $29.4 million that candidates reported raising in the fall's targeted legislative races, David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, predicted a larger SuperPAC role in 2014 statewide elections.

"We have some experience with these but not at the state and local level," Morrison said at an Illinois Campaign Finance Reform Task Force hearing Thursday. "We expect to see significant SuperPAC involvement in the governor's race."

Along with Kent Redfield, director of the Sunshine Project, Morrison called for a more transparent system of reporting campaign contributions and a better way to test for the appearance of corruption in those contributions.

Aside from expecting large inflows of cash from these huge political organizations, Morrison expressed concerns over the ability of voters to identify the real source of these contributions while also worrying that many SuperPACS are hardly truly independent from the candidates they supply with money.

Several of the political donation powerhouses in the state, Morrison said, have federal affiliates giving them money for state and local elections where the sources of those funds are not fully disclosed until weeks after the election.

"There is a risk of corruption or a risk of confusion for voters," he said.

Redfield reverberated that concern and said he believes the issue is "much more likely to be the case when we get to statewide elections."

As far as being independent from the candidates they support, the SuperPACs that exploded onto the political scene last year appear to really only be uncoordinated in their activities with some SuperPACs even sharing offices with candidates, Morrison said.

"Some of it is very basic stuff--sharing employees, sharing office space, sharing vendors," he said.

Redfield echoed his sentiments:

"It's almost reverse coordination," he said. "There's still a risk of corruption there."

The task force plans to meet again next week in Chicago and will issue recommendations and a report to the State Board of Elections by Feb. 1.

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