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IL-GOV Wed Jan 08 2014
It was Friday night, around 6, at the Washington Blue Line stop. A man -- let's call him Fred -- approached me with a clipboard and asked if I would like to sign a petition to place a proposed amendment to the state constitution on the ballot.
The people around us didn't seem too familiar when Fred launched into his spiel. They will be. Fred was their first contact with what may well become the hottest issue of the 2014 election. Not only might this question have huge effects on Illinois government over the long term, it could also lead to the election of a conservative multimillionare Republican as our next governor.
The entity behind the proposed amendment is The Committee for Legislative Reform and Term Limits, and its chair is Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bruce Rauner. Rauner has already put up $250,000 of his own money to push the amendment, plus $749,000 of his own money to his campaign committee. Both the committee formed to support the amendment and Rauner's committee have also racked up numerous donations of $100,000 or more, including several from out of state donors.
Much has been said and written about Rauner trying to buy the gubernatorial election. Some people have also written about how the term limits push may greatly benefit Rauner's campaign. What's been harder to find is a more detailed evaluation of the proposed amendment itself, precisely how the amendment can help Rauner get elected, and how Rauner's opponents might effectively try to hold off his multifaceted strategy.
First, though, let's return to Fred.
I asked Fred how he came to be carrying the petition. It wasn't news to me that he was being paid -- of course he was being paid! But he went on to say that a couple of months ago, he had been collecting signatures to get judicial candidates on the ballot, and it was through that that he learned about the term limit amendment petition. He also explained that this was a petition he actually believed in -- a relevant distinction, since nobody actually cares about judicial candidates.
Fred identified himself as an independent, but one who used to be a Republican. And when he started talking about why he supported the term limit amendment, he immediately went off on Michael Madigan. Here, I think, is where Rauner has his true wedge issue, and needs to be taken much more seriously as a threat to not only win the Republican nomination but also to defeat Pat Quinn in November.
The full text of the amendment is posted on the committee's website. While it is commonly known as the Term Limits Amendment, there are actually four major changes:
The size of the Illinois Senate would be decreased from 59 seats to 41 seats.
The size of the Illinois House would be increased from 118 seats to 123 seats.
The threshold required to override a gubernatorial veto would be increased from 3/5 of both chambers to 2/3 of both chambers.
Effective with the terms beginning in 2015, legislators would be limited to serving eight total years in the legislature. This means not just 8 consecutive years in one chamber or the other. If you serve four years in the House, and then a decade later four years in the Senate, then you'll have hit your limit. These limits would be, along with Nebraska, the strictest for any state legislature in the United States.
Currently, the Democrats hold 40 of 59 Senate seats and 71 of 118 House seats -- greater than 3/5 in both chambers, but less than 2/3 in the House. The amendment would have the almost certain effect of stripping the Democrats of a veto-proof majority.
All of the proposed changes play into Rauner's hands. Although the change to the size of both chambers wouldn't take effect until the next redistricting in 2022, the net elimination of 13 legislators, using data from the Illinois Policy Institute, would mean savings of about $10,000,000 a year just in salaries. While $10,000,000 is a drop in the bucket in terms of the overall state budget, it's a powerful number for Rauner to use in the election.
It also helps that Rauner's opponents in the Republican primary are all longtime officeholders. Kirk Dillard is in his 20th year in the State Senate. Bill Brady is in his 11th year in the State Senate, after having previously served eight years in the State House. Dan Rutherford served 10 years in the State House and then eight years in the State Senate before being elected State Treasurer in 2009. Even though all three men have only served in Democratic-controlled chambers, they are all easy to portray as the kinds of "career politicians" that people like Fred the petitioner would like to see go away.
Rauner also stands to benefit from a simple fact of geography. In 2010, Brady stunned many observers by winning the GOP nomination for governor, beating out Dillard by only 193 votes. But Brady emerged in large part because he was the only downstate candidate, and his leading opponents all lived in DuPage County. This time the situation is different. Brady and Rutherford live about 30 miles apart in McLean County, and they will likely split the downstate vote. Dillard, who might otherwise be the beneficiary, is the least known of the Rauner's opponents, and with Rauner's major fundraising advantage already bankrolling TV ads, Dillard will be hard-pressed to gain recognition.
If Rauner and his deep pockets make it out of the Republican primary, he will likely prove to be a much more formidable opponent to Quinn than Brady was in 2010. Brady's campaign was so inept that he made Quinn look like the more competent candidate -- and Brady still lost by less than 1%. While Rauner may lodge his foot in his mouth -- and his comments about lowering the state minimum wage could be it -- he'll do so while spending millions of dollars teeing off against an incumbent in Quinn who is so unpopular that his ratings have challenged George Ryan's for sheer horror value.
Rauner's ace in the hole, though, may be the Term Limits Amendment. If Rauner wins the primary and the petition is successful, Rauner will be able to run on a major achievement that directly challenges the worst of Springfield. It's not just that the issue itself could motivate voters, but also that getting the amendment on the ballot at all will qualify as a major feat.
Unlike states like Oregon and California where statewide initiatives and state constitutional amendment votes are common, the process in Illinois is brutally difficult. For 2014, a petition to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot would require 298,400 valid signatures. Practically, this means at least 450,000 signatures need to be collected to ensure validity.
Since the current Illinois Constitution was approved by voters in 1970, only one amendment submitted by petition has even made it to the ballot. This was the Cutback Amendment in 1980. Prior to passage of the Cutback Amendment, the Illinois House had 177 members, three elected from each Senate district, with no more than two from any district being members of the same political party. Heralded as a reform at the time for eliminating 59 legislators -- and their salaries -- the Cutback Amendment put Illinois on the road to a dysfunctional government, with overly powerful legislative leaders, which has now plagued the state for decades. The leading proponent of the Cutback Amendment was Pat Quinn. And the chief beneficiary is the man who is the poster child for the dysfunction in Springfield.
Michael Madigan has been in the Illinois House since 1971. For 32 of the last 34 years, he has been Speaker of the House. As the state has spiraled deeper into debt, Madigan has been the constant, more powerful than any of the governors in office since at least James Thompson. The Term Limits Amendment, by including the raised veto threshold and imposing such strict term limits, is clearly aimed at Madigan. If Rauner is shrewd enough to actually run against Madigan as well as Quinn -- a strategy that the Republicans have inexplicably failed to pursue in past elections -- the electorate will likely respond very favorably. Rauner would be able to ride the "throw the bums out" current that so many voters like Fred the petitioner hold, and in Illinois politics, there is no bigger bum than the Kingmaker himself.
Gov. Quinn, meanwhile, will be hard-pressed to tap into much of any current. In the past year alone, Quinn and Madigan have incensed organized labor with their handling of the pension issue, and deeply alienated environmentalists with the passage of an industry-friendly law legalizing fracking. The passage of gay marriage in Illinois came so many years after it should have that the Democrats likely lost more points than they gained along the way.
The circumstances are potentially ideal for a strong progressive challenger in the general election. Unfortunately, the Green Party has no likely candidate lined up, and there seems to be no Indepndent on the horizon either. While the Libertarians may well field a state slate, their politics are close enough to Rauner's that there's little chance for them to make much of a splash.
Quinn's best hope, ultimately, may be that Rauner stumbles down the stretch, and coughs up the primary to Kirk Dillard. But assuming Rauner makes it out of the primary, his fate and that of the Term Limits Amendment will likely be decided in tandem. It may ultimately be incumbent Republican legislators -- many of whom clearly despise Rauner -- who will undermine the amendment and Rauner's campaign with it. Rauner might have overplayed his hand by pushing for resizing the legislature and for such drastic term limits at the same time. Dillard has already told reporters, "I want to be Governor, not King." If his opponents can package Rauner as an over-the-top multimillionaire trying to not only buy the governorship but worse, maybe they'll have a shot at taking him down. But given Quinn's track record, don't count on him being able to save himself. He was an accidental governor, lucky to face a weak opponent like Brady for his last reelection, and extraordinarily lucky that a competent challenger didn't emerge in the Democratic primary this year.
If voters want to keep Bruce Rauner from getting elected, the focus may need to be on attacking the Term Limits Amendment. While voters tend to claim to hate politicians, they also often seem to like their own representatives, and the Term Limits Amendment would take away their ability to keep sending their cheerful, responsive incumbent legislators to Springfield election after election. It would also shrink the State Senate to a size where, especially downstate, most voters would have even less contact with their state senators.
The General Assembly could always counter Rauner's amendment with one of their own as well. If voters were presented with a less extreme amendment -- say, limiting legislators to eight consecutive years in the same office, without changing the size of either chamber -- they might be able to undermine Rauner without ultimately giving up too much. Madigan, after all, is 71, and not likely to spend more than another eight years in office anyway. Maybe he'd be willing to accept less restrictive term limits if the tradeoff is saving his lower veto threshold.
For now, though, Rauner has taken the initiative, and it seems like everyone else will just be reacting. Voters like Fred, perpetually dismayed at their choices, may overlook Rauner's deep pockets and instead embrace the argument that something must be done about "career politicians." The Term Limits Amendment ultimately looks like a brilliant strategic move, and time is running out for the Republican primary challengers to overcome Rauner's burst onto the scene.
Illinois state capitol photo by Matt Turner