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Wednesday, July 23, 2008 03:39 pm

The fox, the farmer, and the chickens

Opposition coalesces to defeat constitutional-convention call

So the fox says to the farmer, "Hey, don't fix the henhouse door — just buy more chickens."

That's pretty much the same advice that you, as Illinois voters, are about to be spoonfed.

Big business, big labor, and some "good government" groups have teamed up to urge a no vote this November on the constitutional-convention ballot question. They're planning to spend $3 million on TV and other advertising.

Illinois voters are given a choice every 20 years about whether to call a "con-con," and in 1988 the ballot question was defeated.

The entire Illinois establishment was opposed to a constitutional convention back then, including most newspapers. But 2008 is a whole lot different than 1988, when the political world was pretty stable here and most things were on track.

"A mess" hardly begins to describe our state's current political situation. Some have suggested that voters are so fed up with our political disaster that they will vote for a constitutional convention with the hope that something — anything — will change.

It was obvious during a conference call with reporters last week that "fear and loathing" will be the message of the "no" campaign.

"If you think things are bad now, just wait until the same people who have screwed up our government get their hands on the constitution," sums it up pretty well. The opponents did their very best to make the claim that the same people who are responsible for the gridlock and political warfare in Springfield will be the ones who will control a constitutional convention.

However, all the powers that be in this state oppose a convention. Why? Because they know they may not be able to control it. They fear the controls that ordinary citizens running as convention delegates might attempt to put on their power, and they believe that the voters, who will have the final say over every single proposed revision or amendment, are not to be trusted. It's no coincidence that the groups providing most of the cash for the "no" campaign are also allied with the most powerful politicians in Illinois.

The well-funded convention opposition will likely do anything to scare you away from voting yes. They claimed last week, for instance, that a convention would cost taxpayers $100 million. That's far more than a recent estimate by a legislative agency, but it has a nice round scary ring to it, so that's what we'll be hearing over and over again.

And the opposition's claim that all our problems are political, not structural, is simply ludicrous. "It's the politicians, not the constitution, that are at fault," says the executive director of the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution, which is fronting for the interest groups.

I do not understand how the opponents can claim with a straight face that even though a tiny number of people have accumulated an enormous amount of power under this constitution — the House speaker, Senate president, and governor — all we have to do is elect new people and all our woes will suddenly disappear.

I've been around just since 1990, and lots and lots of new people have been elected since then, lots of good people, even. I would venture to say that the General Assembly as a whole has a brighter, more diverse and thoughtful membership now than in the old days, but the concentration of power has only gotten more pronounced. Our constitution simply allows too much power to be concentrated in too few hands.

Also, the legislative leaders and the governor control the drawing of the legislative district maps so tightly that it's unbelievably difficult to defeat an incumbent. The only way to do it is with money supplied by those leaders, who get their campaign funds from the very people who are now saying that this mess is purely the fault of politicians, not the constitution.

The people arguing against change have been our political system's greatest enablers, and now the fox tells us that the broken henhouse door is fine and what we ought to do is buy more chickens.

Better to just fix the door.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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