Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is it Time for a Con Con? -- Part I

Editors note: I did a lot of work researching the Illinois Constitutional Convention; I'm going to post that research that I wrote up here. It should be about five or six parts in all. I'll do a post or two a day.

Many people will say that the most important vote that Illinoisans will cast next month will be for President—Barack Obama, John McCain or a third party candidate. While others may argue that the race for the U.S. Senate seat between Dick Durbin and Dr. Steve Sauerberg is the most significant. But according to polls both of those races appear to be open and shut cases. Therefore, it may just be that the most important decision that the electorate makes is if we should, as citizens of Illinois, rewrite the Illinois Constitution. Every twenty years Illinois voters are given the opportunity to call a constitutional convention, and on November 4, 2008, the people of Illinois will have that chance for the first time since 1988.

Illinois has had four constitutions in its history—the original constitution of 1818, and then three rewrites 1848, 1870, and finally in 1970 (a convention was called in 1918 but the constitution was rejected by voters in 1922). The current document came about after a convention was called in 1968 due to the fact that the then constitution was seen as outdated and reflected a state that no longer existed. “In ’68 there was a long developed consensus to change the constitution,” says Jim Nowlan, a former member of the Illinois House of Representatives and Senior Fellow with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs. The 1970 constitution reformed may things including increasing the power of the governor and granting home rule to cities with a population over 25,000. The constitution also guaranteed freedom from discrimination on the base of race, color, creed, ethnicity, and sex, and revenue and finance articles were rewritten creating a flat income tax rate for both personal and corporate income.

The current Illinois Constitution has an automatic call for a constitutional convention every twenty years written into it, starting with 1968 the last time a convention was called. A super-majority of 60 percent of those voting on the question or a majority of total voters is required to call a convention. When the question was last on the ballot in Nov. 1988, voters rejected the question by a three to one margin (900,109 voting in favor of a convention, 2,727,144 voting against it and just over 1 million voters skipping the question).

If voters this time around decide to call for a convention, the General Assembly is required to call for and fund the constitutional convention. It would also set the date for the election of delegates and what type of election would take place—possibilities include a single general election or a primary followed by a general election. Whether candidates would run on partisan or nonpartisan ballot would also be settled by the General Assembly. Any person can run to be a delegate, however, candidates must be at least 21 and have resided in their district for at least two years (and be a U.S. citizen). Legislators most likely will not run, but chances are people close to them would run instead. In 1970, the delegate elections were non-partisan with a single general election. This prevented party insiders from capturing all the delegate positions. However, if it were a nonpartisan election, special interests groups would likely run their own candidates.

Two delegates from each of the 59 state senate districts, a total of 118 delegates in all, would then travel to Springfield and write a constitution, probably late in 2009 and into 2010. The new convention must meet within three months of the delegate’s election. After the delegates have finished writing the new constitution, it will be presented to the voters in a special election and must be approved by a majority of the voters.

The 1970 convention lasted nearly nine months and cost $13.9 million. Delegates were paid a monthly salary for what was typically a four-day workweek. Experts predict that a convention held today would cost $78 million.

The political scene in Illinois today is much different than it was in 1988. Voters are fed up with what is (or rather what is not) going on in Springfield. Recent budget crises at the state level and in Cook County have constituents frustrated. In Cook County, the sales tax was recently increased to the highest rates in the country. The legislature in Springfield appears too busy fighting amongst themselves to pass popular bills, like the ethics reform bill, and it takes far too long to pass necessary bills, like funding for the CTA. And when a bill is finally passed, the highly unpopular governor uses powers granted to him to not only veto the bill but also legislate from his desk by adding to the bill in consideration. To say voters are unhappy may be an understatement. “There was a positive attitude towards a Con Con,” Nowlan says about the efforts in 1968 but today there is a negative and sour outlook on the state government. Governor Rod Blagojevich was found to be the least popular governor in the U.S. this summer according to Rasmussen. And a recent poll in The Chicago Tribune had his approval rating at 13%.

Continue to Part II

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