In Illinois, the very first question on the ballot November 4 — even before the question of who shall be president — will ask voters whether Illinois should open up the state Constitution for a potential rewrite.
It’s a choice voters might not get for another 20 years.
The last time they saw that question on the ballot was in 1988, when they rejected the idea by a 3-to-1 margin, with 900,109 voting in favor of a convention and 2,727,144 voting against it. But 1 million other voters skipped the question entirely.
The question appears on the ballot every 20 years, as directed by the 1970 Constitution. Still in effect today, it was the product of the 1969-1970 constitutional convention that rewrote a 100-year-old document.
The laws written about 38 years ago — everything from letting Chicago make its own laws to the flat income tax rate that is applied to rich and poor alike —were made to last. But some groups with such interests as school funding reform say the laws are outdated and, in the case of education, unfair.
Other groups such as the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution oppose the idea of a constitutional convention, popularly shortened to Con-Con, because they say the entire document would become vulnerable to powerful and emotional lobbying efforts with narrow interests. The alliance has said it plans to spend about $3 million in a campaign to defeat the referendum.
When considering the ballot question, voters will have two choices. They can either vote for a convention and trust the current General Assembly to set the rules for how the convention would work, or they can reject a Con-Con and leave it up to state lawmakers to change major policies through legislation or individual constitutional amendments.
Both have advantages and disadvantages, making it tough for voters to decide. But the decision gets more complicated when the general public has little understanding of how the process works or what the consequences would be. Many don’t even know they’ll be asked that question next month.
To help prepare voters for that first ballot question, here are pros and cons offered by former Illinois Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. They each spoke separately with Bethany Jaeger, Statehouse bureau chief. These are edited versions of those conversations. Listen to the full interviews.
The Illinois lieutenant governor is a former state treasurer and longtime consumer advocate. In 1983, he launched a drive to create the Citizens Utility Board, which still aims to preserve affordable and reliable utility services. In 1980, he orchestrated a grassroots movement to enact the Cutback Amendment, which reduced the size of the Illinois General Assembly to its current 118 members in the House and 59 members in the Senate. He also previously served on the Cook County Board of Appeals and as Chicago’s revenue director.
Q. Why do you support a Con-Con this time around?
Well, I think Illinois has some defects in the structure of our government, and the best way to remedy those defects is with amending our Constitution. Defects are in the structure of government. A lot of gridlock occurs. I think people have become quite frustrated. And the good thing about a constitutional convention is, it doesn’t last forever; the people who are elected delegates are there for just one point in history — they’re not there to earn a pension for themselves or have a career as constitutional convention delegates — so it really is a special opportunity to do things for history that will help make our state a lot better for the people who are the heart and soul of our state, the citizens. Right now, I think Illinois government is too often captured by professional politicians, who don’t always embrace reforms that are overdue.
Q. A constitutional convention is supposed to shield delegates from political influence. Do you think that’s possible by today’s standards?
I think it is. The last time they had a constitutional convention was about 40 years ago. The delegates were elected, two from each state Senate district. Now we have 59 Senate districts, so there would be 118 delegates elected from across the state. It was done last time, and I think it should be done in the future, on a nonpartisan basis. So each person runs on their character and record. I think also one of the good things about it is, last time they did it, anyone could run for constitutional convention delegate. And then in the first round, the top four vote getters were selected to go to the second round. And then from that, the two delegates were elected from the last four. And I think that’s a pretty healthy way to do things. I’m sure interest groups and all of them will be involved in this, but what happened last time — and I have confidence it will happen again — is voters will find the best people for a constitutional convention. The voters, I think, have good common sense and judgment, and I trust the people to elect good delegates.
Q. The legislative leaders get to set the rules of a convention. Do you trust the current leaders?
It’s not the leadership. It’s the House and Senate of Illinois that have to adopt the rules, but I think history is a pretty good precedent. What was done last time, and — in fact, both [Chicago] Mayor Richard Daley and [House] Speaker Michael Madigan were elected constitutional delegates last time — I think they understand that that system was well-received by the public, and I think it’ll be used again.
Q. What issues would you want changed through a convention, as opposed to through legislation or other amendments?
The only things that you can change are matters that involved constitutional amendments. That’s what a constitutional convention’s about. I think, by and large, the 1970 Constitution is pretty good, but after 38 years, there are several defects. And that’s why a convention, I think, is needed to remedy those defects rather than let more decades go by without addressing those issues.
I think school funding is one of the key issues. They thought they had it solved back in 1970, where they said the State of Illinois would fund at least half the cost of education — elementary and secondary education — in Illinois. But the courts have held that the provisions of the current Illinois Constitution are only advisory. They’re not mandatory. So I think that is a key issue because the legislature has struggled with this for four decades. They have to come up with a constitutional amendment to reduce property taxes, to have the state pay more for education. The people of Illinois, I think, are very frustrated about that, and I think that’s why a convention is in order.
I also think our state has been plagued by a corruption tax, caused by countless state and local officials being convicted of felonies for corrupting their offices. I think we need much tougher ethics standards and campaign finance standards that should be constitutionally mandated. It can’t be changed by the mere whim of the legislature. So I think that’s another key area of concern.
I think a third area is opening up Illinois government to more democracy, to letting citizens have the right of initiative to vote on issues, at least some issues, whether it be environmental or consumer issues or education issues, certainly tax reform issues. Right now, our state does not give citizens much opportunity to vote on issues. I think in the 21st century with the power of the Internet, it’s a good way to educate people about issues, give them more say-so in their government.
And I do think that related to all this is reforming the Illinois tax system. The tax code today is fundamentally unfair to average people who live from paycheck to paycheck. They pay far more of their income in unfair taxes — property taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes — and our tax system needs to be reformed so we can give tax relief to people who need it the most, the hardworking families of Illinois. And I do not think that will happen unless you have a constitutional convention.
Q. How confident are you that current educational campaigns are effective so that voters understand the question November 4?
I think voters have a good grasp of major issues. This issue will be first on the ballot, even before president of the United States. The people of Illinois will get a good look at it. I’ve worked on a lot of referendums in my life, and I have always found that the voters get a good grasp of the issue. Now there’s no question that the other side will try and mislead the public. I think it’s very important to point out that the cost of a constitutional convention is about $1 a person in Illinois, roughly $1 a person. You could have a no-frills, no-nonsense, frugal constitutional convention for about $13-14 million, $15 million. That’s a lot of money, but that’s about $1 a person in Illinois to straighten out things that have been going wrong, costing taxpayers literally billions of dollars for the last 40 years. Now, the other side will try and exaggerate and mislead people. We shouldn’t let them get away with it. The cost to the public today of all these convictions of politicians, including a former governor who is sitting in prison today, underline the importance of ending the corruption tax, which has cost Illinois hundreds of millions of dollars. And I think ethics and having recall and giving voters a chance to vote by referendum for tough ethics standards — those are things that are long overdue and worth the cost of a convention.
Q. If voters reject the referendum to call a convention, then what potential do you see for change?
Well, it’s harder because the members of the legislature, particularly in the Senate this year, were resistant to reform, and they did the governor’s bidding. They did whatever Gov. [Rod] Blagojevich wanted on the subject, as I mention, of recall. And also the whole pay raise fiasco. It took a literally 48-hour emergency Internet petition drive, where we got thousands of people in Illinois to send e-mails to Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones demanding a vote on whether or not the politicians of Illinois should get a pay raise. They were just going to collect the money without a vote. That, alone, is a defect that I think is a mile wide in the Illinois Constitution today and needs to be remedied to sort of say, ‘Well, we’re going to rely on the politicians to reform themselves.’ I don’t think people really believe that’s possible. So that’s why a convention is a better way to go.
The people of Illinois elected delegates. The delegates are much more independent — they’re not worried about re-election, they’re not worried about a pension. They see their role as being someone in history that changes something that really needs to be done in Illinois. So I feel strongly about this. I think this is, obviously from Barack Obama’s campaign, a year where the Internet and people at large are getting involved in their government, whether it’s for a political candidate of either party. I just think this is a healthy time in America and here in the Land of Lincoln to take a look at our basic document. The parts that are good we certainly want to keep, but we can propose amendments to the Constitution that make Illinois a better place to live for the next 20 years.
Dawn Clark Netsch
The former state legislator of a Chicago district was a delegate to the 1969-1970 Constitutional Convention. She served as vice chair of the Revenue and Finance Committee. A former state comptroller and Democratic nominee for governor, she’s now a professor of law emeritus at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago and frequent voice of the opposition to a constitutional convention.
Q. Why do you oppose a Con-Con this time around?
We still have, believe it or not, a very good Constitution, even though there are provisions that I would change, just as there are provisions that others would change. I think that most of those provisions could and should be dealt with individually. For example, do we want to get rid of a flat rate [income tax] requirement? I would rather we kind of focus on the income tax provision in the Constitution, and if we want to do anything different about it, do that rather than opening up the entire Constitution. I am deeply concerned what might come out of a constitutional convention on a number of issues.
And I guess I would emphasize the Bill of Rights. We have one of the best and strongest Bill of Rights provisions in any state constitution in the country. And some of those provisions, clearly, would be under assault either directly or by superimposing other things on them, like the abortion issue. And I would hate to see us get into that kind of a mess again.
Most of what’s frustrating all of us about the dysfunctional state government in Springfield right now has nothing to do with the Constitution. Almost any one of those issues could have been resolved, whether it was the transit crisis or the utility bill back a while ago or the budget right now, or whatever, whatever. Any of them are not being held up by constitutional provisions. They’re being held up by an inability of the leaders to get together and work together. And there’s nothing that we could write in the Constitution which would resolve those particular problems.
I worry that in a desire to strike out and sort of punish the people who are perceived to be the cause of the dysfunction right now, we could end up with a Constitution that would build in some provisions that don’t help in the future.
Q. What was it like running as a delegate then?
It was almost like running for any office except that it was nonpartisan, which made a difference, obviously.
Even though most of us who ran were either Republicans or Democrats, there were some pure independents, and it was generally known. At least in Chicago, you hoped to have some help from those who were part of your party organization.
But even so, it was different in the sense that we were not officially running as under any party label, which meant that, at least for most of us, it meant you had to kind of get started on your own, in terms of finding some people to help, finding the office space, getting the petitions out and all that sort of thing. Now that’s not completely different from running for a political office.
Q. How much money did you have to raise?
It was not big-time spending, and certainly nothing like what’s going on right now. But you have to pay somebody, and if you have printed materials, you have to pay for those. If you have an office, you have to pay for it. There are expenses involved. And not surprisingly, in some ways, it’s probably a little harder to raise money for something like a consti... — well, let me say, back then, it was probably harder to raise money for a constitutional convention because nobody sort of knew what it was or cared that much.
One thing that is going to be extremely different this time, if there is indeed a constitutional convention — if the referendum passes — there’s going to be big money involved, I think, totally unlike 1970. And a lot of it’s going to come from special interests. And I think the political parties are going to be very heavily involved this time, whether or not the legislature authorizes delegates to run on a nonpartisan basis. And I’m a little doubtful they would do that. But even if they do, my guess is that the parties are going to be big time — because there are big stakes, big issues at stake. And no question that the special interests are going to be involved very heavily in the campaigns and certainly in the fundraising.
Q. What kind of campaign efforts were out there to educate the public?
Bear in mind that, at least in 1970, there was extremely widespread support for the need for a constitutional convention and the desirability of having one. And they’d been going on for some years, sort of leading up to what became a successful referendum in 1968 to call a convention, which got, I recall, a 71 percent vote, something like that — an extremely high vote.
But there was more interest in it because there was such widespread support for it. Both political parties, all the civic groups, the business groups, the newspapers. Everybody wanted there to be a convention. Why? Because the state Constitution was so antiquated. And the feeling was that there were just lots of things that needed to be freed up, if you will, from the old constitution.
There were just a lot of things that were thought to be really horse and buggy and a need to just sit down and examine the whole document. That, of course, is very different from where we are today.
There are certainly some groups who want particular issues in the Constitution, and mostly, if you sort of look around, with a few exceptions, most of those who are the strongest advocates for a Con-Con now are people who want something that is not there. It’s not that they object to what’s in the Constitution. They might well leave it practically alone, but they want term limits or recall or that sort of thing.
Now, that’s not 100 percent true. There are those who would like to change the Revenue Article. One group would want to eliminate the requirement of a flat rate income tax in an 8-to-5 ratio. And the other group would impose more restrictions on the legislature’s ability to deal with an income tax by imposing caps or something that’s a concomitant of it, which is requiring a three-fifths vote of the legislature for any increase of any tax or fee. In some cases, they may want the three-fifths vote to pass the budget.
Q. Groups who want to change the existing document still talk about the merit selection of judges. Do you think that would pass today?
I happen to be a passionate proponent of merit selection and was the principal sponsor of it for the 18 years that I was in the Illinois General Assembly. I would not hold a convention for that issue, and, to be perfectly honest, I think it’s very doubtful we could even get that issue adopted in a convention.
It could be adopted as a constitutional amendment. Any of these could be done by the amendment process. The problem for some of the people who are proponents is that they are so mad at government that they don’t trust anybody who is down there right now, and so they want to try to put together what they think may be a whole new group of people who might be willing to see things their way and adopt some of the proposals that they so far have not gotten adopted as individual amendments.
Merit selection could be adopted as an individual amendment to the Judicial Article. It has not been. I was not successful in getting it out of both houses. And I don’t see much prospect for it right now. On the other hand, I don’t see an awful lot of prospect for it in a constitutional convention for some of the same reasons. But some of those who do feel very passionately about that issue believe that is the only way that we would ever change the method of selection, and they’re willing to risk everything else in order to try to have a shot at that issue.
Q. There are many issues that could be vulnerable to change. Do you think voters could feel overwhelmed to understand it?
We don’t have any idea what actually would get adopted in a constitutional convention. We know some of the issues that for sure are going to be on the agenda. I mean, certainly, the social issues, the hot button social issues: same-sex marriage, civil unions, abortion, gun control. You know those are going to be issues in the convention.
You don’t know for sure how the delegates are going to deal with them or how many they will deal with. So it’s a little hard to say ahead of time how much will be changed in a constitutional convention, at this point. It could be a small amount. It could be a very large amount. We just don’t know. It sort of depends on who gets there.
What we do know is that there is not the same almost unanimity of view that there needs to be a new constitution written. I think it’s a much more piecemeal thing that people are looking at right now, one way or the other.
Illinois Issues, October 2008