Constitutional convention question has no simple answer
In Illinois politics, even "yes or no" questions aren't simple.
Voters in the Nov. 4 general election will be asked whether or not they think the Land of Lincoln needs a constitutional convention, at which elected delegates would recommend changes to the state's 1970 charter.
Those delegates could decide to make minor tweaks, major overhauls or anything in between. For example, they could add provisions that would permit the recall of elected officials before their terms expire, change the state's tax structure or redo the way legislative districts are redrawn every decade.
Any revisions ultimately would go to voters, who would have the final say on whether to adopt them. Delegates would decide whether the changes would be presented to voters individually or as a single yes or no vote.
Because of problems with the way the referendum question is phrased on election ballots, voters will be getting separate pieces of paper at their polling places that present a more neutral version of the question. That came about after a judge agreed with Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and other critics who said the original wording was unfair because it mentioned the outcome of the previous referendum, in 1988, when voters overwhelmingly rejected it.
Now, however, the referendum question comes at a time when there is a widespread belief that Illinois state government is dysfunctional.
Whether a convention happens depends on the vote totals on the referendum question. There will be a convention if 60 percent of the people voting on the question say "yes" or if a majority of the people voting in the entire election vote "yes." Otherwise, there will be no convention.
If voters authorize a constitutional convention, two convention delegates would be elected from each of Illinois' 59 state Senate districts – a total of 118 delegates. Whether those prospective delegates would run for office on a partisan basis or a nonpartisan basis would be up to the General Assembly to decide as it worked out the mechanics of conducting a con-con. To be eligible as a delegate, a person must be a U.S. citizen who is at least 21 years old and who has lived in their state Senate district for at least two years before the delegate election.
Supporters of a "con-con" say that voting yes will offer an opportunity to fix what ails state government. Opponents say a yes vote won't repair the problems because they're caused by the individuals presently in government, and not by the constitution, which remains fundamentally sound.
The two sides of the debate have attracted an unusual mishmash of individuals and groups.
The "yes" side includes Quinn, state Reps. John Fritchey and Jack Franks, all Democrats, and Bruno Behrend, a Chicago-area attorney and conservative radio talk show host who co-founded the Illinois Citizens' Coalition. The "no" side includes former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican; former Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, a Democrat who was a delegate at the 1969-70 convention; and some labor and business organizations that have banded together in the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution.
Opponents believe a constitutional convention would be risky because changes could be made to constitutional provisions that currently work well, such as the Bill of Rights. They say any needed changes could be made in other ways, including through the General Assembly.
Netsch, for instance, said she'd like for the state's school funding system to become less reliant on property taxes and for Illinois to get rid of its flat-rate income tax system. She thinks that having a constitutional convention won't necessarily provide solutions.
"You don't know that you're going to end up with a less restrictive and more progressive tax structure," she said. "It could be exactly the opposite."
Supporters of a con-con say that while the opponents' argument about making changes outside the venue of a constitutional convention is correct in theory, lawmakers have as a practical matter failed to address many pressing issues.
Franks noted, for example, that he and other lawmakers pushed a recall proposal earlier this year that would have asked voters on Nov. 4 if they want to be able to fire elected officials with whom they're dissatisfied. The measure, prompted by legislators' frustration with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, fell victim to "shenanigans" in the Illinois Senate, where Senate President Emil Jones has been a crucial Blagojevich ally, Franks said.
Franks added a constitutional convention simply would be the "beginning of a conversation" on how to make Illinois better.
"We should never be afraid of a discussion," he said. "I think it's the ultimate way for people to take back their democracy."
Fritchey said his 12 years in the General Assembly have taught him " that there are a number of critical issues that the legislature is either unwilling or unable to take on."
"All too often, elected officials tend to think in two-year and four-year cycles that happen to coincide with their elections," he said. "A lot of these problems are bigger-picture issues that I think may be more successfully dealt with by people who are not susceptible to election issues and appeasing special interests."
Delegates to a constitutional convention likely would emerge as future state leaders, supporters of a convention say, noting that Netsch and current House Speaker Michael Madigan were delegates at the 1969-70 con-con.
Opponents to a constitutional convention also argue it would be expensive - millions of dollars, though estimates vary -- and would bog down state government.
The cost of a con-con would be "a waste of money and worse, it would be a distraction from issues that really ought to be dealt with today," said Jeff Mays of the Illinois Business Roundtable, which is part of the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution.
Edgar said he worries that a con-con now would turn into a "sideshow."
"We can't afford to have any less focus than we have right now on the problems of state government," he said. "People would start thinking about a convention, and we'd never deal with these problems."
Con-con opponents also warn that special interests - groups with particular agendas on specific issues - could have an undue influence on the election of con-con delegates and in any convention proceedings.
Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pros and cons
Illinois voters are being asked if they want to authorize a new constitutional convention. Supporters and opponents of a "con-con" have cited numerous arguments in defense of their stance. Here are some of them.
Why vote "yes"?
Get fresh faces involved in the political process.
Provide a way to fix Illinois and its dysfunctional government.
Any proposed constitutional changes wouldn't take effect unless voters OK them.
Why vote "no"?
State government's problems aren't because of the constitution, but because of the individuals involved.
A constitutional convention would cost millions of dollars - though estimates differ - that could be better spent elsewhere.
Convention delegates might tamper with constitutional provisions that already work well.
History of constitutional conventions in Illinois
Why decide if there should be an Illinois constitutional convention?
Illinois presently operates under the state Constitution of 1970, which replaced the 1870 Constitution.
Voters decided in 1968 that Illinois should have a constitutional convention. The following year, the General Assembly and Gov. Richard Ogilvie agreed on the mechanics of setting it up. They decided, for instance, the delegates should be elected on a nonpartisan basis.
Delegates were elected in fall 1969, and they first convened on Dec. 8, 1969. They met for nine months, crafting a constitution they thought would remain workable for as long as 100 years.
Delegates adopted the proposed constitution on Sept. 3, 1970, and voters ratified it two months later. It took effect July 1, 1971.
Since then, 10 constitutional amendments have been approved and adopted.
At least once every 20 years, voters are asked if there should be a constitutional convention. The last time, in 1988, the outcome was 2,727,144 "no" votes and 900,109 "yes" votes.
Voters will be asked the question again this year.
Passage of the referendum would require approval by 60 percent of those who vote on the question or by a majority of those who vote in the election. If that happens, voters later would elect 118 delegates to the convention. Once the delegates are elected, they would convene within three months.
For more information: See a special Web site of constitution-related items that the Legislative Research Unit has compiled. The site is: http://www.ilga.gov/commission/lru/ConConRef.html
SOURCES: Illinois Blue Book; Legislative Research Unit