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The Mechanics
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Bottom of the Ballot Thu Nov 01 2012

The Bottom of the Ballot: Referendum-Palooza

bottom of the ballot referendums chicago illinois electionsIf you're registered to vote in Chicago, you won't just be selecting candidates. In addition to national, state and local office holders, you will also directly vote on at least four ballot measures: one that could alter the state constitution, one that could lower your monthly electric bill, and two non-binding, advisory votes of debatable significance. Depending on where you are registered in Chicago, you may even get to vote on additional neighborhood-specific questions.

So here's an explanation of each referendum that could appear on your ballot.

Proposed Amendment to Require Three-Fifths Vote For Pension Benefit Increases

"Upon approval by the voters, the proposed amendment, which takes effect on January 9, 2013, adds a new section to the General Provisions Article of the Illinois Constitution. The new section would require a three-fifths majority vote of each chamber of the General Assembly, or the governing body of a unit of local government, school district, or pension or retirement system in order to increase a benefit under any public pension or retirement system."

This proposed amendment to the state constitution is an effort to curb future pension benefit growth by requiring a three-fifths vote to do anything related to increasing public pension benefits. As Secretary of State Jesse White's informational pamphlet [PDF] points out, the amendment would legally define terms such as "benefit increase," "emolument increase" and "beneficial determination," which could lead to major legal and legislative disagreements on what exactly falls under those new definitions. Writing for the Huffington Post, the Better Government Association's Emily J. Miller also points out that "Nothing in the amendment puts Illinois on track to meet growing pension obligations, which are now underfunded by at least $80 billion."

Three-fifths of those just voting on the question or a majority of those voting in the election must vote "YES" for the amendment to become law.

City-Negotiated Electric Rates

"Shall the City of Chicago have the authority to arrange for the supply of electricity for its residential and small commercial retail customers who have not opted out of such program?"

Through "municipal aggregation," a town or city can negotiate electrical rates with a power supplier on behalf of the residents who choose to participate. In theory, negotiating with electricity suppliers through bulk buying power could lower rates for everyone, as has been the case in several Illinois towns and cities, like Wilmette. Were this binding referendum to pass, Chicago residents and small businesses could opt out of whatever future citywide deal materializes and continue to pay the rates they would otherwise pay to ComEd instead.

The Emanuel administration is in favor of this proposal, and has promised an "open and competitive bid process" for ComEd alternatives. Citizens Utility Board estimates potential savings of $100-150 million within five months. However, the media consensus seems to be that while municipal aggregation in Chicago would lower prices in the short term, it may not be as cost-effective once ComEd's contract to purchase energy at above-market rates expires next June.

Make Springfield Pay For Chicago's Teacher Pension Obligations

"Should the State of Illinois provide funding for the normal cost of pensions for Chicago teachers in the same manner as the State pays for the normal cost of teacher pensions in every other school district in the state which fill free up local funding that can be invested in the classroom?"

This is a fairly straightforward advisory vote. Part of the city's budget crisis is due to the fact that Chicago pays the entirety of its school's teacher pensions, while Illinois pays for teachers pensions in every other school district. Whether the state can meet Chicago public school teacher pension obligations, however, is a different question (see the above section on the Pension Reform Amendment.) As the Tribune notes, downstate voters aren't thrilled by the idea of shouldering the burden of more pension debt, and the power to shift the fund obligations to the state will ultimately be out of the hands of Chicago voters.

Overturn Citizens United with a U.S. Constitutional Amendment

"Shall the U.S. Congress pass a bill, to be duly ratified by three-fourths of the states, adopting an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, empowering the federal government and the states to regulate and limit political contributions from corporations?"

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission [PDF] has allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in recent years to advocate for or against political candidates. As many of the current races across the state and country are being fueled by Political Action Committee funds, a vote in favor of this referendum may be symbolic, at best. Still, this may be the most direct way of taking a public stance on the role of money in politics and implicitly, the very concept of corporate personhood that allows corporations First Amendment rights to begin with.

Depending on where you live on the Northwest Side, you will also vote on the following:

Raise Taxes to Expand Mental Health Services

"Shall there be established, pursuant to the Community Expanded Mental Health Services Act (405 ILCS 22), to serve the territory commonly described on this ballot or notice of this question, a North River Expanded Mental Health Services Program, to provide direct free mental health services for any resident of the territory who needs assistance in overcoming or coping with mental or emotional disorders, where such program will be funded through an increase of not more than .004 of the real estate property tax bill of all parcels within the boundaries of the territory (for example, $4 for every $1,000 of taxes you currently pay)?"

Earlier this year, the Emanuel administration cut funding to the city's mental health clinics. This resulted in six of the 12 clinics shutting down at the end of April. The North River Mental Health Center (5801 N. Pulaski) survived, but was forced to reduce its patient load by almost two-thirds, from 900 to 350. According to the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, 71% of local voters in 2008 supported paying an extra .004% in property taxes to expand services at the North River clinic. WBEZ notes that the 2008 vote was an advisory referendum, but this year's vote is binding. The article also points out that "The measure's supporters say they hope other neighborhoods follow suit with their own ballot-based solutions, but mental health advocates in other parts of Chicago worry such an approach could weaken the citywide fight for public mental health funding."

Technically, the aforementioned questions are all at the top of the ballot. However, in select precincts, you may also see the following questions at the very bottom:

Direct Election of Chicago Board of Education Members

"Shall each member of the Board of School District 299, known as the Chicago Board of Education, be elected by voters of the City of Chicago, State of Illinois?"

This is another straightforward (and non-binding) vote. Chicago is the only municipality in the state that doesn't allow its citizens to vote for school board members. It's worth noting that according to the official bios, the mayor-appointed board currently has more Northwestern alumni and members of foreign policy think-tanks than former public school teachers.

Prohibiting the Sale of Alcohol In the Precinct

"Shall the prohibition of the sale at retail of alcoholic liquor be continued in the __ Precinct of the __ Ward in the City of Chicago (as such precinct existed as of the last General Election)?"


"Shall the sale at retail of alcoholic liquor be prohibited in this __ Precinct of the __ Ward of the City of Chicago (as such precinct existed as of the last General Election)?"

Since the repeal of Prohibition, the Illinois Liquor Control Act of 1934 has allowed voting on whether to ban the sale of alcohol in a particular precinct. According to an explanation [PDF] by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, if at least 25% of the voters in a city precinct sign a petition and file it with the City Clerk of the City of Chicago in a timely manner, the question of whether to prohibit (or continue to prohibit) liquor sales within the boundaries of the precinct that existed during the last election will appear on the ballot. This year, prohibition questions will only appear on a handful of precinct ballots.

Private Pick-Up Truck Parking in the 38th Ward

"Shall pickup trucks or vans weighing under 4,500 pounds whose owners have no outstanding parking violations be allowed to park at the curb adjacent to the owners place of residence in accordance with the rules and regulations stipulated in Sections 9-64-170, 9-64-090 and 9-100-020 of the City of Chicago Municipal Code?"

According to an EveryBlock post by 38th Ward Alderman Tim Cullerton, this advisory referendum will "let the voters in the 38th Ward voice their opinion as to whether or not non-commercial, privately owned pickup trucks should or should not be allowed to park on residential streets."

Whatever the actual impact of these votes, a referendum offers a rare opportunity to exercise direct democracy, particularly in a city and state infamous for corruption and a lack of accountability beyond occasionally jailing governors or high-ranking county bureaucrats.

To see what specific referendums (and candidates) are going to be on your ballot, you can look up your registration on the Board of Election Commissioners for the City of Chicago website. Otherwise, you can read a summary of everything that will appear on Chicago ballots here [PDF].

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