Thursday, October 30, 2008

Is it Time for a Con Con -- Part II

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. Part I is here.

If a constitutional convention is called, the entire constitution would have to be rewritten. This obviously would have a major impact on the state and future governance. In effect, what calling a convention would do is open every political and policy topic up for debate. Calling for the Con Con could be the first step in opening up the political equivalent of Pandora’s Box. Some popular outcomes from the 1970 Constitution, like home rule, could be changed; while currently unpopular powers, like the amendatory veto, may not be amended. Opponents to the Con Con, like the Illinois Business Roundtable, say that “a constitutional convention cannot be limited to specific issues.” And they are right, as a single issues there appears to be little need to call for a convention. But when all the issues are taken as a whole, some voters may conclude that a Con Con would be the easiest way to fix all the problems the state is facing. The major issues that will be debated prior to the vote and if a Con Con is called are as follows:

Amendatory veto: This power given to the governor came up most recently when Governor Rod Blagojevich gave free rides to seniors during the CTA funding saga. The amendatory veto allows the governor to return a bill to the house it originated from with specific recommendations for change. According to the Constitution “The bill shall be considered in the same manner as a vetoed bill but the specific recommendations may be accepted by a record vote of a majority of the members elected to each house.” In effect, this allows the governor to initiate legislation independently of the legislative branch. “I think that power was abused though the years… I don’t think the governor is a legislator,” said Mike Lawrence the former press secretary to Jim Edgar. A bid to limit the amendatory veto was on the 1974 ballot; however, voters refused to limit the veto power.

Ballot initiative process: Illinois is considered to be a non-initiative state. An initiative is a public vote on a proposed amendment, law, or ordnance. The ballot initiatives from California are probably the most famous examples and there have been a wave of ballot initiatives concerning gay marriage in the last five years across the country. The gridlock in Springfield has created the perception that very little is getting done while the state faces increasing challenges. Many feel that citizens should be able to bring up solutions to these problems directly through ballot. However, the current initiative process in Illinois is limited and difficult—there has been only one successful ballot initiative in Illinois history, which was in 1980 and reduced the size of the state legislature from 177 to 118 members.

Cumulative Voting: Used by the state from 1870 until 1980, when the ballot initiative reduced the size of the legislature by a third it also eliminated cumulative voting. For those delegates who long for the days of cumulative they may fight for it to be used again in the state. Cumulative voting allows for multiple winners in an election and is used to foster proportional representation. The old three member districts had ensured each party had at least one seat—a few people feel that the move to the current system began “the consolidation of power among legislative leaders that has facilitated the current gridlock in Springfield.”

Education Reform and Property Taxes: In the upcoming months, expect to hear more about education than any other issue having to do with a potential Con Con. Illinois ranks 49th in the nation in the amount of funding the state provides for education. The state, on average, only covers 34 percent of the cost of educating a student (the national average is 50 percent). As a result, property taxes are extremely high—the ninth highest in the nation in 2005. This puts a heavy burden on local residents—especially seniors.

Currently in Illinois there are about 1,000 schools that are failing to meet the federal standards set out by No Child Left Behind. On top of that, eight in ten school districts are facing budget deficits and the number of schools on the financial watch list increases every year.

Reformers will want to lower the reliance and burden on property taxes and local taxpayers for education funding. They will probably fight for an increase in the income tax and take some of that revenue and place it towards education. Noting that Illinois has the second worst per-pupil-spending gap in the nation, others may fight for a property tax and education system like California.
Proposition 13 (or Serrano v. Priest) was a ballot initiative passed by California voters in 1978. The proposition capped property taxes at one-percent of the asset value of the property. The result has been two fold; funding responsibilities have become centralized making local governments more reliant on funds from the state, and education funding has also become both centralized and equalized. However, by making the state more responsible for education funding, it has reduced public school quality. California schools are now ranked among the worst in the nation. This may have driven families to send their children to private schools or find other means to improve local education.
The decision has been fiscally regressive and local governments, without the stream of revenue from property taxes, have turned to other means of taxation like sales taxes or fees. Proposition 13 has also made local governments more reliant on state funds, which has given the state more control over local matters.

Continue to Part III

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