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Schaumburg: Term limits or institutional knowledge? Choice is clear

Published: Sunday, April 13, 2014 12:02 a.m. CDT

There was no shortage of headlines coming out of Springfield last week.

Most notably was the news regarding Chicago pension reform and the death of Michael Madigan’s millionaire tax to fund education.

Madigan’s proposed tax, which would have needed voter approval as a constitutional amendment, was nothing more than a political ploy aimed at Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner. It was a miniature version of a progressive tax.

Madigan blamed Republicans for the millionaire tax going down in flames, which is accurate if by Republicans he meant Democrats.

Seventy-one votes were needed to move the proposed amendment along. There are 71 Democrats in the House. So if every Democrat voted along with Madigan, the tax would have passed. Except Scott Drury, from Highwood, and Jack Franks came out against the tax.

That’s only 69 votes. So Madigan’s shot at Rauner misfired.

One state government-related headline that didn’t receive a lot of attention last week was the release of a Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll regarding term limits.

According to the polling, six in 10 Illinois voters strongly favor legislative term limits for state lawmakers. The live-interview poll was made up of 1,001 registered voters. It was conducted Feb. 12-25. Land lines and cellphones were included, and the margin of error was plus-minus 3.5 percentage points.

This is an initiative that has bipartisan support in Illinois. And why shouldn’t it? Money has taken over government. Public policy is now based on money, and not the public good.

Short of eliminating money from politics, the best way to limit its influence is through term limits.

I’m well aware of the arguments that we already have “term limits” – it’s called Election Day – and that term limits suck institutional knowledge from government.

One look at the political landscape in Illinois, however, refutes those arguments. How long has Michael Madigan been in office without voters in his district removing him? If a giant unfunded pension liability and billions of dollars in unpaid bills is what institutional knowledge gets us, I suggest that institutional knowledge is a crock.

“Regardless of whom you ask or how you phrase the question, legislative term limits are extraordinarily popular among the Illinois electorate,” said Charlie Leonard, a Simon Institute visiting professor who supervised the poll. “Unable or unwilling to limit their own representatives’ terms through the ballot box, the voters seem to hope a blanket constitutional amendment will do the job for them.”

When asked whether a they would favor or oppose a proposal to limit state legislators to a total of eight years of service in the House or Senate – or a combination of the two – 62 percent of those polled said they strongly favored the proposal. Another 18 percent said they somewhat favored the proposal.

About that bipartisan support I mentioned ... 90 percent of Republicans polled were strongly or somewhat in favor of term limits, and 73 percent of Democrats approved of it.

The question was worded the way it was because it reflected the proposal pushed by the group Term Limits and Reform, which is backed by Rauner. The group is collecting signatures to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

In addition to term limits, the amendment reduces the number of state Senate districts, but each Senate district would have three representative districts instead of two. It also would mandate a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a gubernatorial veto. Currently, it takes a 60 percent vote.

I have no opinion regarding legislative districts. I’m not thrilled with the new mandate to override a governor’s veto, but I’m willing to trade that to install term limits. Sure, the governor gets more power, but if a governor’s veto is clearly out of line, conjuring up 67 percent of the House and Senate to override the veto shouldn’t be a problem. Especially if lawmakers are making decisions based on what’s best for their constituents, and not what’s best for their bank accounts.

Term limits would help lawmakers think along those lines.

• Jason Schaumburg is the editor of the Northwest Herald. Since he didn’t grow a beard this winter, he’s decided he will for the Blackhawks’ playoff run. Reach him at 815-459-4122 or via email at jschaumburg@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Schaumy.

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