By Mark Guarino
CHICAGO, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Incoming Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner campaigned as a reformer of the state's often corrupt politics.
But watchdog groups say activities surrounding his inauguration Monday are among the priciest of any incoming governor and take advantage of a loophole in campaign finance that allows wealthy special interests to gain access to those who hold political power.
These groups say Rauner's inauguration festival -with a total tab estimated to reach $10 million - is emblematic of a trend in other states. The costly celebrations, funded by private donors, skirt ethics laws and open conflicts of interest for elected officials, the critics say.
Rauner, a Republican, is allowing corporate donors to kick in as much as $100,000 for inauguration events, and letting individuals spend up to $25,000.
He is hardly alone. Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, will accept up to $50,000 per donor. Corporate sponsorship packages for inaugural events by Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, both Republicans, cost $30,000 and $25,000 respectively.
"We're seeing more and more inaugural activities that have become more expensive, more lavish, and they're being bought and sold by people who have business pending before government," says Craig Homan, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a group advocating for transparency in public financing.
Spokespersons for Walker and Hutchinson did not respond immediately for comment. Beth Melena, a spokesperson for the Wolf inauguration committee, said a donor list will soon be posted on their website.
The price tag for gubernatorial inaugurations is dwarfed by presidential celebrations. President Barack Obama did not allow corporate donors for his first inauguration, though just 211 individuals covered 80 percent of the $35.3 million price tag. For his second inauguration, Obama accepted unlimited corporate donations.
Inauguration events are essentially private parties that are considered non-partisan and are funded by special committees. Under federal and state campaign laws, the inauguration committees are not required to disclose spending or donor names because the inauguration exists outside the election process. All money raised for the events is meant to cover expenses, with surpluses typically given to charity.
In recent years, the events have transformed from honorary banquets to ticketed, star-studded concerts and lavish balls. Donors gain access to events and also can get their names splashed in programs and across other marketing materials.
The process has created the perception that these are veiled opportunities for lobbyists and other corporate interests to curry favor with lawmakers.
"As state and federal governments are getting more and more into managing the economy by regulating and issuing government contracts, the costs of trying to influence state and federal governments go up," says Homan. "Inauguration balls are ideal opportunities to do that."
Many of Rauner's inauguration events are free, such as an open house at the Old State Capitol building where Abraham Lincoln once served and an expo intended to promote Illinois companies.
The events offering access to the incoming governor came at far higher price points. For a concert at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center featuring country music star Toby Keith and Chicago blues great Buddy Guy, Rauner is selling VIP sponsorship packages priced at $10,000 and $25,000 respectively.
The packages include seating at a $1,000-per-seat private reception and dinner on Sunday, access to a private after party, VIP seating at Monday's inauguration dinner reception and name recognition in the official program.
According to the Illinois Observer, Rauner and his wife are also hosting a private "business roundtable and reception" in Chicago this month that costs $25,000 per couple for both events.
Rauner Spokesman Mike Schrimpf says donors will be disclosed but would not say when. He also would not say where any surplus money would go.
Some incoming governors are taking a more modest approach to their swearing-in ceremonies. In Kansas, the committee for Republican Governor Sam Brownback reports that donor contributions are capped at just $2,000 per person. And Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, will do without any parties and events. (Reporting by Mark Guarino; editing by Andrew Hay)