No limit on term limit issue

An old issue is being hauled out of mothballs and introduced into the 2014 Illinois gubernatorial campaign.

Candidates for high political office are constantly searching for issues that will capture the public imagination. Perhaps that's why Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner has formed a new political action committee, this one aimed at organizing a campaign for term limits in the Illinois House and Senate.

Rauner, a wealthy Chicago-area businessman, is one of four announced Republican gubernatorial candidates, none of whom has broken away from the pack. That's not surprising. It's way early in the race; the primary election isn't until March.

Nonetheless, Rauner, state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford each is looking for an edge. There is speculation in some quarters that Rauner hopes that piggybacking a term limits campaign identified with him on top of his run for governor will give him a boost.

Since voters are bound to hear a lot about term limits in the next few months, it's a good time to discuss this method of shaking up the political status quo. There's no doubt that putting limits on how long legislators can serve in the Illinois House and Senate would throw out the old Democratic and Republican guard and give newer and fresher faces a chance to run things. There is doubt, however, as to whether the purported cure — replacing experience with inexperience — would be worse than the disease.

One thing is definitely clear. State legislative term limits would not be necessary in Illinois if voters enjoyed competitive elections. Unfortunately, gerrymandered legislative lines, drawn to benefit one party or the other, deny most voters that opportunity.

Legislators who oppose term limits regularly proclaim that they already operate under term limits — ones imposed by the voters. Theoretically, that is true. In reality, it is false because most legislators run for re-election unopposed or against token opposition because of gerrymandered districts.

It would be far better if voters got behind a plan for a constitutional amendment that would create a nonpartisan legislative map drawing process. Real competitive elections — ones in which a Republican and a Democrat both could run with a realistic chance of winning — would shake up the system without striking a mortal blow against experience and institutional knowledge.

Passing term limits also will likely require a constitutional amendment. While they could be enacted by a legislative vote, political science professor Christopher Mooney has written that "even assuming that term limits was good policy, lawmakers almost never throw themselves out of office."

Most of our elected officials protect their own interests first, and they have no greater interest than perpetuating themselves in public office.

So term limits would have to be enacted by a constitutional amendment approved by the voters. That, too, is extremely difficult because the Illinois Constitution permits amendments to its legislative article only as they relate to "structural and procedural issues."

More than 30 years ago, Gov. Pat Quinn passed the cutback amendment — the elimination of cumulative voting that cut the size of the Illinois House by one-third — because it met that strict guideline. Quinn tried in 1994 to pass a term limits amendment, but the Illinois Supreme Court ruled his ballot proposal failed to meet the "structural and procedural" test and barred it from the ballot. Nearly 20 years later, Rauner's committee will have to figure a way around that legal test or it would face the same problem that Quinn's term limit amendment did.

That assumes, of course, that Rauner's committee really is devoted to term limits, not just getting Rauner nominated for and then elected as governor.

The bottom line is that term limits will be extremely difficult to get on the ballot for a host of reasons. Term limits stand second to redistricting reform in cleaning up Illinois politics, but remain, of course, a clever issue to get voters' motors revved up enough to get them to the polls.

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