SPRINGFIELD – Republican lawmakers may be following Gov. Bruce Rauner's lead when it comes to his battle with House Speaker Michael Madigan, but some members of the minority party say the governor's decision to dole out $400,000 in campaign contributions to them during the final days of the legislative session was unusual and possibly inappropriate.
In what amounts to a rare departure from the unity GOP lawmakers have shown in Rauner's first six months in office, a handful of downstate Republicans say they have not cashed the checks Rauner's political fundraising arm made to their campaign funds because it could be viewed as him buying their votes.
"I don’t want to make it look like someone is influencing me from the administration, so it’s sitting in a drawer and we’re going to hold it," said state Rep. David Reis, a Willow Hill Republican, speaking of the checks worth $3,000 to $10,000 that Rauner sent to each Republican member of the House and Senate.
“I thought the timing was unusual, so while we are debating issues, I thought it inappropriate to accept it," state Rep. Keith Sommer, R-Morton, said last week.
In May, as the legislature's regular spring session was lurching toward an uncertain end, Rauner sent checks worth a total of $400,000 to the 67 Republicans in both chambers. The first-term governor, a wealthy private equity investor before seeking the state's top office, had previously said he would back lawmakers who support his agenda, as well as use his considerable campaign fund to beat up on those who oppose him.
The move clearly made some lawmakers uncomfortable.
In the days after the checks went out, state Sen. Sam McCann, R-Plainview, told the (Springfield) State Journal-Register, that Rauner might have waited until after the dust settled from the spring session.
In June, an expert on state campaign finance laws told Illinois Issues magazine that the contributions were "unprecedented."
“The idea of a governor making contributions to a whole caucus is something I don’t remember ever happening," retired University of Illinois at Springfield professor Kent Redfield told the magazine.
According to a review of the contributions as of last week, six members of the Senate had still not cashed their checks, including state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet.
In the House, 16 of the 47 GOP members had not cashed Rauner's checks.
In all, the lawmakers have collectively left $119,000 of Rauner's money on the table.
Rauner, the first Republican governor in a dozen years, has locked horns with the Democrats who control the House and the Senate, leading to a stalemate over the state budget that has left the state on the verge of a potential shutdown. The governor also has blasted state labor unions, putting some GOP lawmakers who represent unionized workers at state prisons, retirees and university employees on the hot seat.
Along with Reis and Sommer, state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, was among those who said the contributions felt odd.
"While we appreciate the donation, I haven’t made a final decision of where, if and when, what I’ll do with the check," Brady said.
Brady said he may even give away the money Rauner gave him.
"As far as depositing the check, as far as possibly using the check to go towards other charities, or to other areas that might be beneficial, that’s what I’m looking at," Brady said.
State Rep. Don Moffitt, R-Gilson, also said he's unsure what he'll do with Rauner's cash.
“I’ve received a few contributions here during the session, and I’ve just put them aside rather than to open them and deposit them while there was still legislation going through the process. Timing is a bit unusual,” Moffitt said.
Although Moffitt said he'd "probably" cash the check after lawmakers end their impasse over the budget, he said the contribution made him uncomfortable.
"I just thought to receive it while there is still pending legislation, I’d feel more comfortable after the session is over. And this one just doesn’t want to end," Moffitt said.
Those who have accepted the cash include Republican state Reps. Tim Butler of Springfield, Adam Brown of Champaign, Tom Bennett of Gibson City, Terri Bryant of Murphysboro and Bill Mitchell of Forsyth,
In the Senate, those who took the money include state Sens. Tim Bivins of Dixon, Bill Brady of Bloomington, Dave Luechtefeld of Okawville, Neil Anderson of Rock Island, Dale Righter of Mattoon and Jason Barickman of Bloomington.
Rauner spokesman Lance Trover did not return messages seeking comment about the contributions.