John Bambenek: Constitutional Convention needed to fix flaws in current system

John Bambenek

Illinois voters will be presented with an historical opportunity to fix the structural problems that plague Illinois government and fix deficiencies and loopholes in our current constitution.

There are problems that can only be fixed in a constitution but the entrenched interests have come out saying a convention is unnecessary. Here is why they are wrong.

There are two arguments that a constitutional convention is inadvisable: the necessary changes can be made through other means (i.e. electing better politicians) and that there is no way to ensure that reform-minded delegates get elected. Skipping past the individual merits of these arguments for a moment, the arguments perfectly illustrate the problem. On one hand, we need to elect better politicians (I agree); on the other hand, we can’t elect enough good politicians to make a difference (I also agree). The opposition to a convention presents no solutions, just another intractable problem.

Fixing the balanced budget loophole that allows the state to count debt as “income”, ending gerrymandering, allowing binding citizen referendums, creating recall elections, enabling open ballot access and term limits all have to be done in a constitution. There exist only three ways to amend the constitution. The legislature can do it, citizens can have a referendum to amend the legislature article only, or a constitutional convention must be convened.

Citizens could initiate amendments, but only on the legislative article of the constitution and then only the “structural and procedural” items it contains. Some good reforms could be made this way, but it would not fix the deep-seated structural problems (like counting “debt” as “income”) in the Constitution because those referendums would not be allowed.

The Illinois Supreme Court has significantly curtailed the rights of citizens to directly put amendments on the ballot. Citizens attempted to implement term limits for legislators and the Supreme Court ended that. Judges have ensured no real avenue for reform exists for citizens.

There are amendments in the General Assembly that contain many of the reforms that Illinois citizens want, they’ve been declared dead on arrival. For years, and in some cases decades, legislators have attempted to introduce amendments to fix our broken constitution and they’ve all met the same fate. They never see the light of day.

That leaves a constitutional convention the only option to fix the structural problems with our government and the current constitution. This is the precise reason why such a provision was put into the current constitution: to allow the people to take control and reform the government when all other avenues have failed.

The state is in dire shape with over $106 billion in debt, a failing pension, government officials on every level being investigated or indicted on federal corruption charges and the needs and interests of citizens routinely being ignored. Illinois deserves better.

Electing good politicians would help, but there are structural problems in our constitution and laws that close the political process to “outsiders”. Third party and independent candidates, for instance, have to get 10-15 times the number of signatures as “established” parties, for instance. More importantly, constitutions are written to restrict the harm bad politicians can do. That’s why there are “Bills of Rights” and “checks and balances” with a mind of keeping the level of harm as small as possible.

If a convention happens, it will take work to identify and elect reform-minded delegates and it won’t be easy. However, sitting by and hoping things get better means the state gets driven to bankruptcy, more politicians get indicted and the needs of the citizens continue to be ignored. This November, citizens have the power to take back their government and effect the changes that are needed before it’s too late. The General Assembly has failed; now it falls to us.

John Bambenek is a columnist and co-founder of the Illinois Citizens Coalition. To contact him, go to or