Opinion: Mapping a way to term limits
Nobody has less trust in their state government than Illinoisans.
For years, Gallup polling has placed the Land of Lincoln dead last in the nation on that measure.
Who can blame us?
Illinois is one of the most corrupt states in the country, and contains the nation’s most corrupt metropolis. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago peg the Windy City as the nation’s “corruption capital.”
Frustration with the status quo comes in many forms, maybe none more evident than residents’ overwhelming disgust with career politicians.
Nearly 4 out of 5 Illinoisans support term limits, according to polling from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Gov. Bruce Rauner renewed his calls for term limits this past week. He’s been banging that drum since taking office.
But legislative leaders are plugging their ears.
House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have held office for a combined 82 years.
Madigan, the most powerful politician in the state, was elected in 1971. He’s been speaker of the House for all but two years since 1983, when car phones were cool. Cullerton came to the Statehouse in 1979.
Of the nation’s 10 largest cities, only Chicago lacks some form of term limits. Aldermen Ed Burke assumed office in 1969, months before the Beatles broke up.
Illinoisans have gone to incredible lengths to put an end to lifelong politicians. But a political machine fueled by a lack of term limits has crushed them at every turn.
In 2014, hundreds of thousands of petition signatures poured in to put term limits on the state ballot. Organizers collected nearly double the 300,000 signatures required by law.
But the effort was swiftly snuffed out. An associate of Madigan’s, Michael Kasper, successfully sued to silence voters on the matter.
The ruling in Kasper’s favor was based on a 1994 Illinois Supreme Court decision, spurred after the Chicago Bar Association, or CBA, sued to keep a similar term-limits referendum off the ballot. The ruling came down, 4-3. Three of the four justices in the majority were members of the CBA.
Lawmakers’ efforts to pass term limits have been similarly unsuccessful.
In 2015, members of the House of Representatives filed a resolution to put term limits in the state’s constitution. It never left Madigan’s Rules Committee. The same resolution filed in the Senate stalled as well. The Illinois House and Senate are two of only six state legislative bodies in the nation where bills can’t be heard without the leader’s approval.
In their dogged fight against term limits, Illinois’ elected officials have provided the perfect case study as to why the state should limit politicians’ tenures. The consolidation of power into the hands of a chosen few is the direct result of a state where politicians deal in terms of eras, not elections. In dynasties, not democracy.
Those who argue against term limits sing a common chorus: “We already have term limits, they’re called elections.” Others shift blame to voters for low election turnout.
However, real elections would require fair maps, something Illinois lacks for the same reason it doesn’t have term limits: entrenched interests.
The current legislative districting system leaves too many Illinoisans without a real choice in elections. More than 60 percent of Illinois’ state legislative races in 2016 will be uncontested.
Politicians redraw the state’s legislative maps every 10 years, carefully choosing their voters. Madigan has had that privilege on three of the last four occasions.
In fact, the last successful citizen-lead referendum in Illinois was the 1980 legislative cutback amendment, which enabled Madigan to eliminate 43 GOP-held seats from the House of Representatives via his map for the 1982 elections.
Madigan has repeatedly blocked efforts to reduce political influence on Illinois’ legislative maps. Kasper successfully fought to kill a mapmaking-reform referendum in 2014 and is doing so again this year. Cook County Circuit Court Judge Diane Larsen struck down the ballot question July 20, handing Kasper another major victory.
The case will now head to the Illinois Supreme Court.
Term limits have been an uphill battle for years. But despite being muzzled again and again, Illinoisans should take heart in knowing they’ve shone a spotlight squarely on those who have rigged Illinois’ political system in favor of the powerful.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.