End And Means: Term Limits Wouldn't Shake Up Springfield

Oct 1, 2014


Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

To hear the bluster of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner and his lackeys among the state’s editorial writers and punditry class, the court decisions tossing his proposed initiative to impose term limits on lawmakers was a shocking slap in the face of Illinois citizens and a huge victory for the Dark Lord of Illinois politics, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan.

“Illinoisans by the hundreds of thousands have spoken out in favor of shaking up Springfield with term limits, and the will of the people should not and, ultimately, will not be denied,” Rauner asserted after Cook County Circuit Court Judge Mary Mikva issued her ruling in late June.

“Nearly 600,000 Illinoisans signed the petition to put our amendment on the November ballot and the State Board of Elections has certified that we submitted enough signatures to be on the ballot,” Rauner said, urging the state Supreme Court to consider the issue after an appellate court panel upheld Mikva’s decision in August. “The people deserve to have their voices heard.”

When the justices declined without comment, Rauner in television spots declared the court “sided with Quinn-Madigan against nearly 600,000 Illinoisans who signed a petition to put term limits on the November ballot.” For all the whining, though, the consistent court rulings should have come as no surprise to anyone who’s literate in the English language; to argue otherwise suggests either crass cynicism or a learning disability.

For starters, Judge Mikva’s opinion pointed out the state’s high court already had ruled that term limits did not meet the narrow window for citizen-proposed constitutional amendments, which are limited to structural and procedural subjects in the Legislative Article.

Rauner’s crew contended the proposal passed muster because its wording included a change in the size of the legislature and a change in the veto override process. But Mikva noted, “The addition of other components ... which may well be structural or procedural, cannot save this initiative” because under the 1994 ruling, any initiative must be limited to structural and procedural subjects.

Upholding Mikva’s ruling, the appellate panel agreed “some components of the ... proposed amendment may very well comply” with the limitation, but the proposal “is ultimately invalid because of its term limits provision.” The 1994 decision viewed term limits as a matter of the “eligibility or qualifications of an individual legislator,” the panel noted, and in turn, neither structural nor procedural.

Perhaps a more fundamental question might be whether term limits would in fact “shake up” the Springfield “culture of corruption” Rauner professes to be so worried about. Let’s put aside for now whether the body politic comes out ahead from jettisoning all that institutional knowledge in favor of fresh faces, or whether non-elected players like staff and lobbyists become more influential in policymaking as elected expertise declines.

Instead, consider the reason many everyday citizens say they want term limits — a way to get rid of entrenched politicians they feel are not responsive to their interests. “But can’t you just vote them out of office each election?” one might ask. “Well, we don’t really have any attractive choices,” comes the response. “Good candidates have too hard a time getting on the ballot and funding a campaign.”

Assuming that’s true, what real difference would term limits make? For example, if you’re a Chicago Republican who thinks your local lawmaker is a Democratic Machine hack, would the next one be any better, if the current office holder were forced out? Or if you’re a socially liberal Democrat in rural Illinois who sees your Republican legislator as a right-wing gun nut, would a successor be that different once the incumbent gets term-limited?

Whether one likes it or not, the fact is that almost all of the 177 members of the Illinois General Assembly are in Springfield because more of their constituents voted for them than for any opposing candidate. The only exceptions would be the handful of new lawmakers appointed to fill the vacancies of departed legislators, and many of the newcomers already won local voters’ approval in the March primary.

For those who see long-term legislative service as a bad thing, a better prescription for the perceived ailment than denying voters in a given district the right to retain a lawmaker they believe is doing a good job as long as they wish would be to level the playing field for challengers so that every race would be more competitive, not just those for seats being vacated by incumbents who’ve worn out their eight-year welcome.

One good way to do that, as this column first suggested more than 20 years ago, would be to adopt a redistricting procedure that minimized partisan considerations in drawing legislative boundaries. Under current practice, mapmakers strive to produce as many districts as possible favoring their party and protecting their incumbents. Thus, the current Democratic-drawn map is artfully gerrymandered to elect Democratic legislative majorities, which in all likelihood will continue throughout the decade. Using some other criterion than partisanship as the No. 1 concern would result in a greater number of competitive districts and provide less security for incumbents.

But wait, didn’t a citizens’ initiative to change the redistricting article also get tossed by the Mikva decision? True, but in a way that seems to provide very useful guidance for the “Yes for Independent Maps” folks. Most significantly, the decision said “redistricting appears to be fair game” for an initiative, in part because delegates specifically mentioned its inclusion while debating the initiative plan at the 1970 convention that drew up the new constitution.

The fatal flaw in the rejected proposal, Mikva ruled, was its 10-year ban on mapmakers running for the legislature or certain other public offices, an impermissible change in qualification for office that was neither structural nor procedural.

The redistricting decision was not appealed, largely because the state Board of Elections ruled the initiative’s sponsors failed to garner enough valid signatures, so Mikva’s conclusion appears to be the latest official legal word that a different redistricting amendment could meet the constitutional test.

Organizers promised to remount their efforts for 2016; a good first step might be to omit any limitations on future political activity by those involved in the new redistricting process. Also essential to the effort is a much better job of collecting and vetting signatures. The term limits folks also had their petitions scrutinized by the same government officials that reviewed the redistricting ones, but survived the test because they did a better job.

Should the effort fall short in two years, redistricting reformers can try again in 2018 or 2020, because even under their proposal, the next remap wouldn’t occur until 2021, following the 2020 census.

And for anyone really interested in a complete panoply of diverse thought and opinion in the legislative halls, there’s one citizens’ initiative that’s sure to pass judicial scrutiny — a petition drive to restore cumulative voting, lamentably scuttled as part of the 1980 Cutback Amendment that then-gadfly Pat Quinn engineered to cut by one-third the size of the House. But that’s a topic for another column.

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues, October 2014