Thursday, September 19, 2013

Illinois 'legislative reform' package is more than just term limits

The Illinois 8-year term limits initiative intended for the November 2014 ballot is a package of reforms, yet all the attention will be paid to its centerpiece. Indeed, it is the 8-year term limits that will offer the most profound changes to the way Springfield works -- or doesn't work.

But what of the other elements? Are they legit? Is there a surprise inside? Color me cynical, but there are politicians in the room!

Reviewing the amendment here, it is clear there are no hidden trap doors or bended mirrors. Each element complements the term limits plank in an attempt to make the Illinois legislature more simple, flexible and representative. And, like the term limits, most of the ideas have been tested in other states.

THREE HOUSE SEATS PER SENATE DISTRICT -- This amendment would divide the Senate districts into three House seats instead of the current two so that an incumbent house member would be limited to one third instead of one half of the Senate District in terms of name recognition. This is another shift in power from incumbents to outsiders. That is, to citizens.

CHANGES IN CHAMBER MEMBERSHIP -- To accommodate the plank above, this amendment changes the number of members in each chamber. The House will expand from 118 to 123 members and the Senate will shrink from 59 to 41. A secondary benefit of this is that the House is the more representative of the two chambers, or at least it will be once the term limits kick in. It has shorter terms, more elections and smaller districts where one citizen can have more influence. On a net basis, the membership changes reduce the overall number of members and saves some money.

VETO POWER -- In Illinois it is unusually easy for the legislature to overturn a veto by the governor, requiring only a 3/5 vote. Under this amendment, the requirement would be 2/3 as it is in 36 other states.

NO MORE 2-YEAR SENATE TERMS -- This one is a simple housekeeping item. It abolishes the odd two-years term in the Senate that somewhat complicates the election process, encourages political gaming and confuses voters. In the future, all Senate terms will be four years as in most other states.

TERM LIMITS -- The crown of the amendment is, of course, the eight-year term limits. Eight years is the most common and time-tested term limit in America from the U.S. President and numerous state governors to nearly a dozen state legislatures and an uncountable number of county commissions, mayors and city councils.

This is a well-constructed package that makes both large and small tweaks to the structure and process of the legislature to push it in a more representative direction.

We need 300,000 signatures to put the question in the voters' hands. Let's get to work.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Term limits address the special ills of Illinois

As reported earlier, a campaign has been launched to put 8-year legislative term limits and other reforms on the Illinois ballot for November 2014. While every state legislature should have them, there are characteristics of the Illinois legislature that make limits essential.

While many states have part-time legislators who are paid nominal amounts for their service, a seat in the Illinois legislature is a full-time, year-round job paying a professional salary of $67,836 a year plus expenses. Legislators can retire earlier than other state workers and get a better pension too. The job attracts professional politicians like moths to a flame. Indeed the two best represented occupations in the legislature are lawyers and, you guessed it, professional legislators. Illinois suffers greatly from this narrow range of experience.

Illinois is among the nation's most corrupt states. Corruption is highly correlated to tenure because secure tenure breeds the hubris and opportunity necessary for corruption to blossom. Not only that, but the closed, tight circle of a government without regular rotation is far less transparent – and hence less accountable – than a more open, term-limited one.

Illinois state elections are simply not competitive. Since 2001, 97 percent of incumbents won reelection. Term limits mandate open seat elections at least every eight years in every seat. With term limits, the era of automatic incumbency will end, quick.

At election time, it is normal for half of the legislative seats to be uncontested, which means no elections are held and voters have no say in who represents them. This may continue to be true in non-term limit years, but in every seat a potentially competitive open seat election will be right around the corner under 8-year term limits.
Supporter in Cary, Ill.
The political culture in Illinois is characterized by political scientists as "individualistic," where the business of politics is chiefly concerned with about who is getting what. Who wins elections determines whose supporters get rewarded. (This is often contrasted with more "moralistic" or ideological political cultures such as in, say, Wisconsin.) The result is that a symbiotic relationship emerges between the legislator and the special interests that serves both their interests, permanently. Term limits tear up these cozy relationships and greatly reduce the influence of lobbies, whose resources are stretched thin between competitive races and who are constantly having to create new relationships.

One of the most marked peculiarities about the Illinois legislature is the centralization of power in the hands of party caucus leaders. Unlike other states and the U.S. Congress where committee chairman wield great power, in Illinois committees are more like rubber stamps for what the leadership wants. The leadership even chooses staffs for legislators and doles out campaign money for targeted races around the state. Term limits will change that.

Chris Mooney, a professor of political studies with the Institute of Government Affairs at the University of Illinois, believes it is for this reason more than any other that the effect of term limits will be a profound one in Illinois.

"The most prominent characteristic of recent General Assemblies is the centralization of power in the hands of long-serving party caucus leaders; by ousting these and other senior legislators, term limits will almost certainly effect a complete reconfiguration of the state's political power structure."

That is what Illinois needs and what voters want.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

It's about time: Term limits coming to Illinois!

By nearly any metric, Illinois is a basket case. In terms of growth of gross domestic output and growth of employment the state has long trailed the nation. Taxpayers have been migrating out of the state. The treasury is empty and taxes are rising in a self-destructive attempt to keep the state government afloat. One state scorecard ranked Illinois 47th among the 50 states in economic performance in 2012 and 48th for economic outlook.

How can this be?  Illinois has a full-time, professional legislature which is made up of predominately lawyers and experienced professional legislators. There is little turnover, with one study showing that overall turnover of the Illinois legislature to be the seventh lowest in the nation.  Certainly such a stable and experienced full-time team of lawmakers should make Illinois among the best-managed states.

Or, maybe this is precisely the problem. Maybe legislatures operate better with regular turnover, meaningful voter input via competitive elections, better incentives and a wider range of experience.
Bruce Rauner

Recent polling shows voters think so. A Paul Simon Public Policy Institute Poll published in November 2012 suggests some 78 percent of Illinois registered voters believe term limits are what is needed to shake up Springfield.

And it looks like they are going to get their way. A campaign has sprung up, led by venture capitalist and gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, which aims to put a reform package on the ballot for 2014 with 8-year term limits as its centerpiece. The committee is currently raising money and making plans to collect the 300,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot. You can help the Committee for Legislative Reform and Term Limits at their website here.

Before the first signature is collected you can already hear the politicians and special interests dusting off their favorite defense: "We aleady have term limits, they are called elections."

The problem with that little flower of homespun wholesomeness is that it isn't true. Over half of all legislative seats in last year's Illinois general election went unopposed. There were no elections held at all!  Even where elections were held for contested seats nearly all were nominal, lopsided affairs. A study of the legislature from 1992-2003 showed that the average vote margin in nominally contested races was never less than 25 percent.

Nothing has changed since then. Competitive elections are virtually unknown in the state of Illinois.

Consider this: Since 2001, incumbents seeking re-election have won more than 97 percent of the time.

Term limits will return turnover to the Illinois legislature, give voters greater voice, change the leadership of the body and toss out the professional legislators. It's time, let's get it done.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

New Yorkers punish term limits foe in mayor's race

At first considered the front-runner, term limits foe Christine Quinn went down in flames Tuesday as New York Democrats chose Bill de Blasio to be their nominee for New York City mayor. She didn't even end up in second place, trailing far behind William Thompson.

Quinn's flame out was not quite as spectacular as that of Anthony Weiner, but it followed a similar course.

Quinn was Speaker of the New York City Council in 2007 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided he wanted to run for office for a third term in defiance of New York's term limits law. The popular 8-year term limit had been passed and  then reaffirmed by voters in 1993 and 1996.

After internal polling showed voters would again affirm term limits in 2008, Mayor Bloomberg decided to simply ignore the earlier referenda and lengthened term limits from 8 to 12 years via a simple council vote. Oh yes, it lengthened the terms of the council too. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.

The ringleader for this betrayal of the voters was Chris Quinn. Voters never forgot. Term limits dogged her campaign since day one and many prominent supporters pointed to the issue as the primary reason for turning to de Blasio or Thompson.

Quinn, a married lesbian, was quoted by the New York Daily News saying that although her candidacy fell short, she hoped it enabled lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens across the city to dream that they could make history someday. That's nice, but exit polling suggests she lost the gay vote too.

The May 1 Village Voice headline read: "LGBT purists to Christine Quinn: We'd love a gay mayor. Just not you." The Voice's Steve Weinstein wrote that Quinn's detractors point to 2006, when her peers elected her speaker, as the moment when she sold out her progressive base ... sucking up to a man [Bloomberg] whose endorsement would help smooth her way into the mayoralty. Two years after becoming speaker, Quinn led the council in overturning two voter referenda on term limits, enabling Bloomberg -- and City Council members -- to run for a third term ... That single action is likely to define her career."

"Among everyone I know, the first thing they say is, 'She betrayed us on term limits,'" gay rights activist Louis Flores told the Voice.

Quinn betrayed all New Yorkers and paid the price on election day when she had to run as a challenger in a competitive race. And that is the most important feature of term limits and the open seats they create: the people can have their say.