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Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 12:01 am

Changing the rules

Should people change the people’s government?

 Proposals to change the Illinois Constitution, I’ve noticed, are like UFO sightings: They tend to come in bunches. At the moment, the skies above Springfield are filled with strange apparitions. Several groups, some with good intentions, are busy preparing to put on the November ballot measures to change the way income is taxed by the state of Illinois, to change the way that legislative district boundaries are drawn, and to limit the tenure of state lawmakers. And only a while ago, in 2012, a proposal by House Speaker Madigan to require a “supermajority” to increase pension benefits for Illinois public workers at all levels was put to the people, who rejected it.

Whichever of the currently proposed amendments make it onto the fall ballot, and whatever the outcome of the votes, the result is likely to be a changed state government, but not a fundamentally improved one. Of the 11 changes to the state charter voters have approved since 1980, four dealt with housekeeping matters, such as changing the effective date of laws and adding lay members to the court commission that no one knew Illinois had. Of the five proposed amendments that would have altered the basic provisions of the state’s charter, four passed. Three materially enhanced life in Illinois – the expansion of rights of indictees and criminal defendants and the lowering of the voting age. One that should have been approved – the 1992 proposal to make education a fundamental right and gave the state preponderant responsibility for funding it – was not.

Several – allowing the recall of sitting governors, making life tougher for defendants and easier for victims of crimes – were knee-jerk responses to headlines. Among them was the 1980 amendment that reduced the size of the House of Representatives from 177 to 118 in 1980. The motive force for the yes vote was voters’ annoyance at lawmakers who had just given themselves a catch-up 40 percent pay raise. The end was simply to have fewer legislators; the means was the abolition of multi-member districts.

Such frivolous amendments offer rich lessons in the risks of unintended consequences. For reasons that are too complicated to explain here, the multi-member district was and remains the surest way to guarantee independent voices in the legislature. Those who damned the overweening power that Mr. Madigan enjoys might spare a curse or two for Mr. Quinn, who did so much to make it possible.

The case revealed, again, the same rift that runs through our system since founding – whether and to what extent the people can be trusted to conduct their own affairs. In states in which they enjoy rather a lot of freedom to do that, such as California, the results are not edifying. As I explained in a column last fall (Fixing the wrong problem, Sept. 26, 2013) term limits are universally hailed by people who don’t care for politicians and universally damned by people who care about government. I sympathize; people were sold a professional legislature when Illinois switched to annual sessions, and all they got was a full-time one. What they forget is that it isn’t the being in Springfield that corrupts pols, it’s the getting there.

As for requiring supermajorities for certain money votes, Californians thought it was such a great idea they began applying it as a universal remedy. They required, for example, that state budgets must have the approval of two-thirds of the members. The idea was that this would require each side to give a little to get the required votes. Instead it gave the minority party veto power. “This ensured general idiocy,” in the opinion of  The Economist’s guy in Sacramento, “and missed deadlines every budget season.” Californians in 2010 came to their senses and changed the budget approval requirement back to a simple majority.

The drafters of the 1970 Illinois Constitution sensibly put hurdles – not roadblocks – between the citizens and their state government charter to prevent its being amended frivolously. They specified that citizen-initiated amendments must change both the structure of the General Assembly and its procedures. Readers with long memories will recall that Mr. Quinn, who is occupying the Executive Mansion until voters elect a governor, organized an amendment campaign in 1990, “Eight is Enough,” that would have limited legislators to no more than eight years’ service in the General Assembly. The Supreme Court ruled it off the ballot, which Quinn called “an insult to the highest ideals of democracy.” Any parent will recognize the wisdom in this – it’s why you put the cookies out of reach of your toddler.

Please understand that I do not believe that every amendment being proposed this year in Illinois is foolish. I am convinced, based on the experience of other states like Illinois, that a nonpartisan remap commission would do some good, and that a graduated income tax would do a great deal of good if coupled with other sensible fiscal reforms. I also am convinced that, being good for the State of Illinois, they will not find favor with that substantial fraction of the voting public who believes that the solution to most public problems is to make government work worse, and thus they will be rejected.

The term limits amendment, because it promises to take politics out of self-government, is likely to be approved, in spite of the fact that voters already have the means at hand to limit the terms of their legislators – elections. The enthusiasm for such provisions betrays a lack of faith in basic American politics that is (dare we say it?) un-American.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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