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State Politics Fri Oct 31 2008

Con-Con Vote, Too, Pits Hope v. Fear

The presidential race has been cast, at least by the Obama campaign, as one between hope and fear Here in Illinois, however, where blue v. red is in no doubt, voters still confront a ballot question that truly represents the same dramatic choice: yes or no to a constitutional convention (PDF)? Proponents hope for change and real reform. Opponents want to scare voters into rejecting a rare shot at democracy.

The call for a con-con appears every 20 years, automatically. Our last framers thought it sensible to periodically review how we govern ourselves. Otherwise, it's ridiculously tough to initiate an amendment in Illinois, requiring hundreds of thousands of signatures, on a very narrow subject range. So we've had only a few minor amendments since 1970.

Any Illinoisan not asleep knows that our government is dysfunctional. Given our state's wealth and intelligence, we rule ourselves extremely poorly. It's disingenuous to attribute this to "personalities," because the system gave us those. Since we can't give anyone in Springfield a personality makeover, let's look at what we could fix.

Topping the list? our antiquated tax system. The state constitution mandates a flat income tax, so any state leader who wants to raise income tax revenue has to raise taxes on every middle-class and even minimum-wage worker. Political suicide! So we end up with an inequitable, regressive tax system, patching annual budget holes by nickel-and-diming citizens through literally hundreds of smaller, sneakier taxes on everything from utilities and cell phone service to vehicle registrations and fishing licenses. These fall disproportionately hard on the middle and lower brackets.

Fuming over property taxes? They've soared in part because of the limits on taxation. Our current constitution supposedly makes the state fund the bulk of education, but the clause is too squishy to enforce. The result is huge variation between property tax levies available to various districts, bearing no relationship to what the districts' children actually need, and resulting in windfalls for some districts while others scrape and struggle.

Think the governor's re-writing of bills on CTA fares or the budget is wack? Well, who gave him that power? Our state constitution, that's who.

Don't change the constitution, say opponents, change legislators and leadership. As if! Our constitution permits the grotesque gerrymandering by which legislators pick their voters rather than the other way around, and has no limits on campaign funding or spending. We've waited half a century for tax reform and election reform. Give it up. A power structure never wants progress, it wants perpetual preservation.

Change will only come when the voters get a chance to legislate. What drives those urging a "yes" vote on con-con is hope - hope that we'll seize for ourselves a rare chance to bypass the smoke-filled rooms and trading pit.

By contrast, the "no" crowd points to the scarecrow of unidentified "special interests" running amok. But those sounding this alarm, apparently with no sense of irony, are the same business and labor groups who now spend the most on lobbyists, elections, and legislative influence. Is the real fear a Springfield that's a level playing field?

Some normally good-government groups and politicians have also come out against a con-con. Their fear is still fear, but a different strain. It's the fear that they really are what conservatives accuse them of being, a liberal elite minority that doesn't represent most Illinoisans. They warn that unlike the legislature, where they can force standoffs and standstills, a constitutional convention will be commandeered by pro-life, gun-toting, fundamentalists.

Nonsense, for two reasons. First, look at the map: Democrats have every statewide office, both legislative houses, both U.S. senators, and, after Tuesday, maybe 16 of the 19 congressional districts. Never has Illinois been so blue. If ever there was a time to hope for a progressive con-con, it is now.

Finally, we just have to trust democracy. Remember, whatever comes out of a con-con - even if only a few changes - still needs final sign-off by millions of basically decent, risk-averse, midwestern voters in Illinois. Us. We're not likely to do anything crazy.

Any Illinoisan voting for hope over fear ought to vote yes on con-con.

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Andrea Raila / November 4, 2008 1:28 AM

When the Illinois legislature can stop school funding reform, property tax and ethics reform, and taint the ballot language on an historical public policy issue that comes only every 20 years---there is something fundamentally broken in our government. It’s an insult to democracy.

In 1992 the legislature placed an educational funding reform amendment before voters, which got 58% approval – but just 2% shy of 60% to become law.
Our elected officials placed no other educational funding reform amendment on the ballot again in the past 16 years.

Paul Villas, currently leading the New Orleans Recovery Education Project, was the former head of the Chicago Public School. Vallas --- cited by President Clinton for raising test scores and balancing the budget ----urged a Yes Vote for the Illinois Con Con. Vallas certainly knows a thing or two about Chicago public schools.

Cook County James Houlihan and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr both endorsed and urged a yes vote for the constitutional convention. They certainly know a thing or two about inequitable property taxes and inequitable educational funding.

If you want to take back your own state and tweak the constitution to close loopholes, vote “yes” for con con. Or vote no as Governor Blagojevich, former Gov Edgar, the union bosses, insurance companies, utility companies and special interest PACs and trial lawyers and powerful lobbyists urge us with their $1.7 million in “Just Vote No” money.

When we wake up November 5 Wednesday morning after the elections, will Illinois citizens is better off if the self-serving special interests have bought their election choice with fear mongering?

A “yes” vote for con-con is at the very least a vote for a fair taxing system to better educate our children.

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