PI Original Adam Doster Friday May 30th, 2008, 11:46am

Is Con-Con The Answer?: Progressives Mull A Constitutional Convention

If Illinois voters can agree on one thing, it's that lawmakers in Springfield aren't as effective as they could be. Take a survey of 2,301 registered voters conducted in mid-May by the automated polling outfit Ask Illinois. When prompted to identify "who would do a ...

If Illinois voters can agree on one thing, it’s that lawmakers in Springfield aren’t as effective as they could be. Take a survey of 2,301 registered voters conducted in mid-May by the automated polling outfit Ask Illinois. When prompted to identify “who would do a better job running our state," former governor George Ryan, now imprisoned on federal corruption charges, outdistanced Governor Rod Blagojevich by four percentage points. Not to be ignored, the General Assembly -- distrustful of the governor and consumed by their own intra-party squabbles -- often fails to deliver timely progressive solutions favored by Illinoisans. Last summer’s budget fiasco is a prime example.

But the ill will towards many of our state leaders begs a crucial question: Is the gridlock in Springfield a result of flawed leadership or structural deficiencies in the Constitution? That’s the fundamental issue voters will answer this November, when the possibility of rewriting the state's governing document through a Constitutional Convention (known colloquially as Con-Con) will be placed on the ballot. Whether a convention provides the best vehicle for progressive reforms is unclear, but the pros and cons deserve serious scrutiny before voters head to the polls.

Some history

In the late 1960s, residents and lawmakers from across the political spectrum agreed it was time to update the Illinois constitution, which at the time was inundated with archaic agricultural rules not relevant since Reconstruction. While they didn’t agree on specific provisions, two powerful Richards -- Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Governor Richard Ogilvie -- backed the idea and did their best to insulate the delegates (two from each senate district elected on a non-partisan basis) from political pressure so as not to obscure the main function of the convention.

“They moved out of the State Capitol over into the Old State Capitol and that made a real difference,” says Anne Lousin, a professor at John Marshall Law School who served as a research assistant to the convention. “Now they were in a very historic building and they were separate from the legislature.”

After three years of planning and nine months of intense debate, delegates emerged in September 1970 with a Constitution more suited for the twentieth century. Among other issues, the new document established the power of home rule for cities and townships, greatly expanded the veto power of the governor, and created the State Board of Education, the Comptroller's office, and annual sessions of the General Assembly. Delegates also included a provision that guaranteed voters the opportunity to convene additional conventions by referendum every 20 years.

Illinoisans had little interest in reworking the constitution the first time a referendum was placed on the ballot, voting against holding a Con-Con by a 3-1 margin in 1988. But in subsequent decades, discontent with state government has swelled, leading some to believe that a convention is the only suitable form of redress.

The pro-Con-Con crowd

Support for Con-Con boils down to roughly two camps. On one side, there are those who argue that the current constitution restricts democracy by concentrating clout in the hands of unresponsive legislators. “State lawmakers certainly can’t be trusted to undertake the significant changes that need to be fixed,” says John Bambenek, co-founder of the pro-convention Illinois Citizens’ Coalition, “especially when it cuts into their own authority and their own influence and power.”

A new constitution favored by this bipartisan crowd might include measures to recall elected officials and apply legislative term limits, which boast majority support among Illinois residents according to polling data. It could also provide citizens the ability to draft and vote on binding referenda. The way the state draws legislative districts, which often leads to gerrymandering by Republican and Democratic party bosses, could be revised as well.

You could aptly call a portion of this crowd the "Blagojevich haters": citizens so frustrated with the current administration that they are willing to scrap the whole constitution for the opportunity to remove him from the Governor’s mansion (even if the new document wouldn’t be ratified until after his current term ended).

The second camp is more focused on those progressives policies consistently neglected by cautious lawmakers. Among them is the state’s constitutionally-binding flat income tax rate, our reliance on property taxes to fund local school districts, and the loose campaign finance laws that allow special-interest groups to hold disproportionate sway over elections. If these issues are not put before a fresh set of convention delegates, some progressives fear that legislators will continue to cite constitutional restrictions as an excuse for their own lack of political will.

"A Dangerous Time"

While these goals are laudable, the prospect of throwing the constitution open for public dissection certainly has its drawbacks. For one, Article 14, Section 1 of the current document stipulates that the state legislature -- criticized by many for its failure to find common ground -- sets the rules for the convention, deciding how the election will be run, how the votes will be tabulated, when and where it meets, and whether delegates are to be elected on a partisan or non-partisan basis.

“This is a dangerous time to give the keys to the constitution over to the folks who are in leadership in Springfield,” says Nancy Kaszak, former state representative and executive director of the Alliance To Protect The Illinois Constitution, a coalition of civic leaders who oppose Con-Con. “These folks have difficulty passing budgets and … [they] can’t even agree when to meet.”

The cost of a convention is another red flag. Wayne Whalen, vice president of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Foundation board and a delegate in 1970, told Illinois Issues that facilitating the labor-intensive work of convention deliberations would cost taxpayers roughly $100 million.

That figure doesn’t account for the heavy sum prospective delegates would need to raise to win a seat at the convention either, meaning that lobbyists, special interests, and party leaders would be well positioned to set the convention’s agenda and reap its rewards. “Money is going to play a much bigger role in who runs today,” says Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “We may get bogged down in discussions on things like gay marriage and choice and gun rights that won’t help us move to a nice bipartisan resolution on the crucial fundamental structural issues we want to confront.”

Constitutional changes would also require both ratification by voters and the development and approval of legislation to carry out the new constitutional directives, meaning the time-consuming and expensive work might not net any productive revisions.

Other avenues for reform

As some point out, constitutional reform doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Since, 1970, 17 amendments to the constitution have been proposed and 10 have passed, none of which disrupted what many consider the most comprehensive Bill of Rights in any state constitution. “Once you have a Con-Con, there are no limits,” says Martire, “whereas in an amendment process, you can very much limit the discussion, the analysis, and the debate to the very specific reform you want to enact at the moment.”

Progressive lawmakers can also propose creative legislation that subverts unfriendly constitutional mandates. A prime example is Senate Bill 2288, which passed the education committee in February and would create a permanent revenue source for schools and property tax relief for homeowners. And if legislators won’t get on board with innovative solutions, strong grassroots primary and general election challenges are effective ways to enforce accountability.

The jury is still out on whether Illinoisans favor a convention. The last survey conducted in January by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs found that only 39 percent of respondents backed Con-Con, well short of the majority needed. A massive 43 percent described themselves as undecided.

What happens in Springfield between now and November will likely tip the scales one way or another. But regardless of those developments, voters should give serious thought to whether Con-Con is a viable answer to our state’s gridlock or a political shortcut with dangerous implications.

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