Statehouse Insider: Constitutional convention measure on the ballot

Doug Finke

How do you screw up a “yes” or “no” question? Let the powers that be ask it.

Voters will be asked next month if they want to convene a constitutional convention in Illinois. It’s the first time in 20 years they’ve been asked that question and it will be the last time for 20 years they’ll be asked that question.

As you may know, a constitutional convention could pave the way for changes to the state constitution that probably wouldn’t otherwise get made.

Supporters like to point to recall, where elected officials could be voted out of office. The idea could have been on the ballot next month, but it was blocked by the Illinois Senate. A convention could get the idea on the ballot without going through the General Assembly.

Opponents — which include a wide range of entrenched interest groups spanning the spectrum from labor to business — have their own list of ideas that could get on the ballot that they think would be bad for the state, like changing the tax structure. They’d rather head things off by convincing voters to reject the convention.

Either way, the question itself is a simple yes or no. Want a convention? Vote yes. If not, vote no and move on.

Only it isn’t that simple. The Legislature — most of whom aren’t keen on a convention — cooked up the constitutional convention language that appears on the ballot. Cooked is the operative word since a Cook County judge agreed that part of it was flat-out false and another part was slanted against the convention.

Although a court challenge was mounted as soon as the language surfaced in September, the courts decided it was too late to print new ballots.

The solution is to give every voter a leaflet when they go to the polls. It explains the convention issue in neutral language and tells voters to ignore the language on the ballot.

If there was poetic justice, the leaflet would serve as a reminder of the games being played to scuttle the convention and convince them to vote for a convention. Instead, it will probably just confuse a lot of people who will then not vote at all. That would be a shame. It’s your last chance to voice your opinion on this for 20 years.

For or against, at least vote.

Money problems nothing new

In the past few days, Gov. ROD BLAGOJEVICH sent letters to congressional leaders, Treasury Secretary HENRY PAULSON and Federal Reserve Chairman BEN BERNANKE asking them to give direct financial assistance to states. Blagojevich noted that they all worked together to provide $700 billion worth of bailouts to the banking and financial services industry.

“As the same time, states, like most American families, are facing uncertainty about their ability to pay bills and balance the checkbook,” Blagojevich said in an accompanying news release. “Federal assistance is essential to help states endure the current economic slowdown.”

You read the news release and the letter and you get the impression that poor old financially responsible Illinois was tooling along nicely when the financial meltdown hit and now it has money problems that the feds should help solve. What a crock.

Illinois certainly has financial problems and they’ll be made worse by the credit meltdown. Through a combination of overspending and poor management, those problems started long before the credit crunch took firm root. The only thing is that now Blagojevich has someone other than himself to blame for the state’s mess.

It’s worth mentioning because this is likely to become part of the Blagojevich script for the next few months. You’ll hear him imply that things were OK in Illinois until the credit crunch spiraled out of control. Because of that, things are now bad.

Just because you hear him, though, doesn’t mean you have to believe him.

Short-term borrowing

The credit crunch has made it tough for everyone to borrow money, including states. In his letter, Blagojevich said this is important because Illinois, like other states, uses short-term borrowing “to ensure timely Medicaid payments …”

Attention, congress people: Illinois doesn’t pay its Medicaid bills on time even with short-term borrowing. If you want to throw money at some pointless enterprise, don’t send it to Illinois. Build another bridge to nowhere.