The Democratic presidential candidates are one-upping each other in their promises to bring "change" to Washington. But the debate shouldn't stop there. Illinois' government is badly broken, and the power to mend it is within reach of the state's discontented voters.
The Illinois House, reflecting widespread disdain for Gov. Rod Blagojevich's scandal-plagued tenure, decisively voted to give citizens the power to remove corrupt public officials and those whose policies or job performance falls short of expectations. But Senate President Emil Jones, the governor's ally, has at least temporarily tied up the bill in committee.
Even so, the voters could ultimately gain the right to oust unaccountable officeholders if they back a constitutional convention referendum that appears on November's ballot, as it does every two decades. When such a referendum was last before voters, 20 years ago, they soundly defeated it. But with lawmakers stalemated on education funding reform, ethics, property tax relief and now the recall of officeholders, this year may be different.
Still, opponents include power brokers who argue that the existing Illinois Constitution, only 40 years old, continues to serve the people. They peddle the fear that a convention might be hijacked by extremists out to reverse hard-won protections. And pointing to the $14-million cost of the 1970 convention, which would be $78 million in 2008 dollars, they argue it's beyond the ability of the state's depleted Treasury to fund.
But the constitution urgently needs to be comprehensively revamped to deal with the critical issues the General Assembly can't or won't address.
A convention wouldn't be rolled over by special interests because they're unlikely to marshal the votes to prevail, and, even if they could, a new constitution must be ratified by the voters. And the cost of a convention is less the issue than its value: No public question is more important than the authority we vest in our government and the limits we place on our leaders.
A constitutional convention's agenda is up to the elected delegates, and they're sure to tackle a host of social issues. But high among their concerns will be governance itself.
In addition to the right to recall elected officials, should citizens be able to change the law by binding initiatives and referenda, especially when the General Assembly will not? Should state judges be selected on their merit? Should the governor have amendatory veto power? Should home rule prevail, or should there be restrictions on municipal taxing and spending powers? Should political gerrymandering be outlawed to permit competitive races throughout the state? Should term limits be imposed? Should independent and third-party candidates have the same access to the ballot as those of established parties?
It's time to rescue Illinois' government, and only the people can do it. We owe each other no less.
This month's Lane Report is adapted from a guest editorial published in Crain's Chicago Business on April 28, 2008.
Marc J. Lane is the President of The Law Offices of Marc J. Lane, a Professional Corporation, and of its financial-services affiliates. He is a business and tax attorney, a Master Registered Financial Planner, and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law.
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