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.