Jim Dey: Term limits, redistricting will take center stage this week

Jim Dey: Term limits, redistricting will take center stage this week

This is going to be a big week in the ongoing death struggle for political power in Illinois.

Even as a ballot dispute over a proposed constitutional amendment on legislative redistricting continues in Springfield, House Speaker Michael Madigan's lawyers are going to court in Chicago to kill two proposals that could eventually bring the state's professional political class to its knees.

One proposed constitutional amendment would set eight-year term limits on legislators while the other would strip them of their authority to draw boundary lines for their own House and Senate districts, transferring that authority to a bipartisan citizens' group. Oral arguments on Madigan's legal challenges will be heard Wednesday by Cook County Circuit Judge Mary Mikva, the daughter of former congressman and federal appeals court judge Abner Mikva.

"This is the last hurdle remaining before (the term limits amendment) gets on the ballot," said Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner. "But it's a big hurdle."

The term limits proposal has been a major plank in Rauner's campaign platform. A man of vast wealth, Rauner bankrolled the petition drive that ultimately collected roughly 600,000 signatures, nearly twice as many as the close to 300,000 needed to put the term limits plan on the ballot.

The redistricting proposal, which is separate from term limits, is funded by private contributions and backed by a bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats.

After reviewing the term limits petitions, staffers at the State Board of Elections found them legally valid. The elections board is scheduled to meet Tuesday to review the issue.

"The (staff) recommendation will be for the board to put the (term limits) question on the ballot," said Rupert Borgsmiller, executive director of the elections board.

Although they approved the term limits petition, elections board staffers found signatures on the redistricting petitions flawed and barred the issue from the ballot. "Yes for Independent Maps," the organization backing redistricting, vehemently disagrees and has challenged the decision.

On June 12, Yes for Independent Maps began the long process of "rehabilitating" the challenged signatures, submitting signed affidavits and registration records from voters whose signatures were ruled invalid.

The rehabilitation process requires reviewing challenged signatures one at a time before a hearing officer, Chicago lawyer Barbara Goodman.

Borgsmiller said that a good rate of review is "200 signatures a day" and that "it's hard to say how long the process is" going to take.

Although the rehabilitation process is crucial for redistricting, the legal challenges to redistricting and term limits are even more important because Madigan's lawsuit seeks a court ruling that forbids such issues from being put to a vote.

His concern is understandable. Both proposals strike at the power base that allows veteran legislators to accumulate power. Indeed, Madigan is so agitated by the proposed amendments that he instructed his lawyers, led by former counsel Michael Kasper, to file legal challenges to both before petition signatures were processed by the elections board.

The redistricting plan aims to block the incumbent majority party from perpetuating its power by gerrymandering Senate and House districts; in other words, crafting boundary lines to give itself an advantage. Eight-year term limits would make it impossible for politicians to remain in office for as long as they wish.

Either one would severely restrict the options of politicos like Madigan, who has been in office for 43 years. Together, they would usher in a brand-new political day in the corrupt, business-as-usual state of Illinois.

But it's not easy for citizens to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The drafters of the Illinois Constitution limited citizen initiatives by restricting them to legislative issues that deal only with "structural and procedural subjects."

Further, the number of signatures required is borderline impossible without an organized, well-financed effort.

Twenty years ago, Gov. Pat Quinn, then a rabble-rouser who liked to pick fights with the establishment, proposed a term limits amendment. But it was barred from the ballot because the Illinois Supreme Court found that his plan did not address both "structural and procedural" issues. Quinn, however, remains the only person even to pass a citizen initiative, one that in 1980 cut the size of the Illinois House from 177 to 118 members.

Anticipating another legal challenge, Rauner's term limit amendment was drafted to address both "structural and procedural issues."

It would limit legislators to a total of eight years in office starting Jan. 1, 2015, reduce the number of state Senate districts from 59 to 41 while increasing the number of House members from 118 to 123 (three House districts within each Senate district), and increase the number of legislators needed to override a gubernatorial veto from a three-fifths majority to two-thirds.

The size changes in the House and Senate would not go into effect until the next redistricting in 2022.

The Madigan-directed lawsuit, however, argues that efforts to address "structural and procedural" issues in both amendments are legally flawed.

It contends that barring eight-year incumbents from running for re-election creates a new and impermissible qualification to candidate eligibility requirements of age, residency and citizenship.

It argues that increasing the number of votes needed for a veto override is an impermissible transfer of legislative power to the governor.

It asserts that the term limits amendment contains "four separate and unrelated questions" that violate the constitutional guarantee that "all elections be free and equal."

The lawsuit makes similar arguments against the redistricting proposal, charging that it would "unconstitutionally change and diminish the power of the legislative branch."

These amendments, of course, are not about diminishing the power of the Illinois General Assembly. They are about diminishing the ability of individual legislators to obtain and maintain outsized power for decades at a time by exploiting the current rules.

Ultimately, of course, this litigation will be decided by the highly politicized Illinois Supreme Court. But the high court can't act until the lower one hears the scheduled oral arguments and issues an opinion.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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