Austin Berg: 'Lockbox' question an insult to Illinois voters
By AUSTIN BERG
Temperature all right?
Something to drink?
And how is your salmon this evening?
On a sinking Titanic, these are not pressing questions.
And in Illinois, the lone ballot measure before voters statewide this November has nothing to do with the state's dismal economic climate. It has nothing to do with the massive pension costs crowding out an ever-larger share of essential state services. It does nothing to address the nation's highest property taxes, which are forcing families from their homes. And two of the most popular political ideas in the state, term limits and redistricting reform, are nowhere to be found.
Nope, Illinoisans get the "lockbox amendment." And nothing else — save for the names of politicians running for office.
The lockbox amendment is fairly straightforward.
Voters will choose whether they want to amend the state's constitution to say all state revenues that come from transportation — sources include taxes and fees on driver's licenses, fuel and vehicle registration — must go only to fund transportation initiatives.
There are plenty of reasons to vote for this amendment.
Construction unions and contractors say it will ensure the safety of Illinois roads. State politicians passed the ballot question through the General Assembly almost unanimously, a rare occurrence given the gridlock in Springfield. Proponents point to what has happened to the state's road fund over the last decade. Over that time, lawmakers diverted more than $6 billion from that fund to plug budget holes.
There are plenty of reasons to vote against this amendment as well.
Many people bristle at the idea of enshrining spending priorities in the state's constitution. Look at what's happened to Illinois' constitutionally backed pension scheme, after all. The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that the state constitution's pension-protection clause prohibits altering even the unearned pension benefits of current government workers.
The flexibility to use these large, transportation-related revenue sources for other emergencies is crucial, some say.
There's no clear-cut answer. And opinions have not splintered along partisan lines.
But either way Illinoisans vote, they lose. Why? Because the most important questions facing the state didn't make it on the ballot.
Lawmakers have introduced more than 90 distinct constitutional amendments in Springfield since 2015. The lockbox is the only one that made it to ballots.
Many amendments were killed in House Speaker Mike Madigan's Rules Committee. The frequency at which good ideas are muzzled in this committee without a single word of public debate is depressing. If those reams of discarded paper could serve as pavement, Illinoisans wouldn't need to spend much on new roads.
When lawmakers refuse to put change on the ballot, citizens take matters into their own hands.
More than a half-million Illinoisans signed a petition to reduce politicians' influence in drawing legislative maps — a game Madigan has been more adept at playing than any politician in state history.
But a lawyer with close ties to the speaker successfully sued to keep that measure off the ballot.
Illinois' broken mapmaking system is part of the reason why too many voters won't just be lacking an important choice in ballot measures, but in candidates as well. Tortured district lines have led to 60 percent of state legislative races being uncontested this year.
In the history of the state, voters have only once succeeded in putting a binding initiative on an Illinois ballot. The 1980 cutback amendment passed overwhelmingly, eliminating a few dozen lawmakers from the House of Representatives and helping Madigan consolidate power as speaker when his peers first elected him to that office in 1983.
Significant change arising from a statewide ballot question is a long shot. Especially with Madigan in charge.
Until leaders in the General Assembly muster the courage to give voters a voice on big issues, don't expect much more than a lockbox.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. His email is email@example.com.