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If voters won’t get rid of bad lawmakers, term limits will

SPRINGFIELD – No matter how bad they are, lawmakers are hard to get rid of.

Last week, we saw Illinois House GOP Leader Tom Cross deposed by members of his own caucus. Cross, a 30-year legislator, will be replaced by another career lawmaker, Jim Durkin, who has served 14 years in the General Assembly.

Sometime next year, House Speaker Mike Madigan likely will set the record for the most years served as the leader of any state legislative House chamber in the history of the United States.

He’s been serving in the Illinois House longer than many of its members have been alive – 42 years.

For decades, reporters, editorial writers and the occasional fawning sycophant have taken to referring to him not just as “The Speaker” but as “The Powerful Speaker.”

Senate President John Cullerton is the godfather of Madigan’s son and began his career as a political acolyte to The Powerful Speaker in the House. Cullerton also is a longtime lawmaker, having served 34 years in the General Assembly.

For years, I personally opposed term limits, arguing that voters have an opportunity to limit politicians’ terms by voting them out in the next election.

Unfortunately, that often isn’t the case.

State legislative maps are drawn in such a way that very few districts are actually in play. In fact, most lawmakers are elected with nominal or no opposition.

And who draws the legislative maps?

You guessed it – the career politicians themselves.

Madigan has been up to his wingtips in the process for decades.

Voters aren’t choosing their elected officials; elected officials are choosing their voters.

And those lawmakers who face contested elections can expect campaign cash to flow from leadership coffers into their campaigns.

Once reaching Springfield, rank-and-file lawmakers will be reminded of who got them there. And the leaders will expect their fidelity.

It’s a self-perpetuating system that places career lawmakers in control, punishes political independence, and leaves voters with fewer choices.

It’s also the system that has saddled Illinois with astronomical debt and a growing tax burden.

That’s a byproduct of politicians caring more about their own political future than what is best for the state.

So how do we break out of this cycle? The best way is to push against the status quo and seek term limits for all lawmakers.

There are rumblings that soon there will be a petition drive to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2014. The amendment would limit the terms of lawmakers.

The measure is being pushed by Bruce Rauner, a candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

But the concept of term limits has broad support.

It’s an issue also championed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

The details of what words will be placed on the ballot have not yet been disclosed.

But the concept of term limits is an idea worthy of exploration.  

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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