Illinois Without Career Politicians?

People are sick of politics. People point to the career politicians to assign blame for the political mess in Illinois. But are people ready to put some reins on Springfield?

Bruce Rauner bets that a majority of voters are.

Rauner, a multimillionaire venture capitalist and first time Republican candidate for governor of Illinois, is spearheading an effort to impose term limits on state legislators, reduce the size of the state Senate, and strengthen the governor’s veto.

The Committee for Legislative Reform and Term Limits, launched in July 2013 and chaired by Rauner, is circulating a petition to put their amendment on the 2014 ballot—the same one that might bear Rauner’s name if he secures the Republican nomination in the March 5 primary election.

“This constitutional amendment will help shift the balance of power in state government back towards the citizens. Every element of this amendment is a good government reform and will empower the voters and make elections more competitive,” Rauner wrote in a post announcing his chairmanship of the Committee.

This works well in theory, but it won’t work in practice.

The major flaw in Rauner’s amendment lies in its main feature: an eight-year cap on state legislators would create chaos in Springfield. Some even say it might be unconstitutional, since the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a similar effort to put term limits on the ballot, ruling that the topic of the amendment was outside the “structural and procedural subjects” contained in the article of the state Constitution dealing with the legislature.

Career politicians certainly can, with their loyalties, special interests, and carefully cultivated relationships, make a political mess in Springfield. Rauner seems fixated on this in his post on the committee’s website, writing, “No more career politicians. Eight years and you’re done for good. This takes away the structural incentives for self-dealing that currently exists.” What Rauner misses is the potential benefit to Illinois: If legislators could overcome partisan loyalties, their experience in legislating and knowledge of the subject matter could benefit Illinois in the way less experienced politicians might not.

In the Illinois pension crisis for example,  it was seasoned politicians, such as Speaker of the House Mike Madigan (D-Chicago), who introduced bills addressing the uproar. Madigan has held the position of speaker for twenty-eight years, almost four times longer than Rauner’s amendment would allow. After Madigan introduced his proposal, State Senate President and twenty-year Springfield veteran John Cullerton (D-Chicago) jumped in on the action, releasing his plan shortly thereafter.

When the committee was formed in the summer of 2013, Fran Hurley was new to Springfield—and new to public office. As a first-term representative from a district representing a portion of Chicago and the southwest suburbs, Hurley said she felt the pressure to learn the lingo that comes with her new job. Other new legislators may be feeling the same. According to research compiled at Texas Tech University, states with more inexperienced legislatures due to term limits tend to have lower bond ratings and less stable bipartisan relationships.

One component of Rauner’s three part plan calls for raising the threshold for overriding a governor’s veto to a two-thirds majority from its current three-fifths majority, helping an embattled governor in the kind of political climate currently present in Springfield. The move is supposed to be self-serving, as Rauner would benefit from the shift in the balance of power if he were to become governor.

It doesn’t hurt Rauner’s campaign that the majority of southern Illinois voters strongly support term limits. According to an early October 2013 poll by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, almost three quarters of respondents favor term limits for state legislators and approximately 83 percent of voters supported term limits for legislative leaders.

In order to beat his Republican opponents in the primary campaign, Rauner needs to secure the conservative vote in downstate Illinois. But he cannot move too far to the right and alienate more moderate Chicago-area voters. Campaigning on an issue like term limits—an issue which enjoys broad-based popular support—is a smart political strategy. A candidate tying his name to a movement as popular as term limiting career politicians like Michael Madigan and John Cullerton definitely doesn’t hurt—having an inexperienced and unstable legislature does.

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