Term limits fever?

Term limits fever?

Illinois elected officials backing term limits? What's that about?

There's no denying the political appeal of term limits for elected officials, the latest evidence coming from a public opinion poll released by Southern Illinois University-Carbondale showing overwhelming popular support for the concept.

So it should be no surprise that some politicians in Illinois are hopping on the bandwagon, or at least pretending they are.

Republican legislative leaders Wednesday introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit statewide officeholders to two four-year terms. The next day, Gov. Pat Quinn embraced the Republicans' proposal, bragging that he has been a longtime supporter of term limits.

Here's the problem. There's a May 4 deadline to put the issue on the fall ballot, meaning that the Democratic Legislature will have to move quickly to pass the plan. Further, putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot by legislative action requires a three-fifths majority vote.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton have never been enthusiastic about term limits, and they possess all the authority that's needed to block a vote on the measure in their respective chambers.

So voters are well-advised not to hold their breaths while they wait for substantive legislative action.

The good news is that term limits for statewide officeholders are not really a problem.

There are a few examples of statewide officials serving multiple terms, most notably former Republican Gov. Jim Thompson. Big Jim stuck around for 14 years. Republican Judy Baar Topinka, who is now state comptroller, served three terms in the treasurer's office. Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan is seeking her fourth term in office while fellow Democrat Jesse White is running for a fifth.

Those exceptions notwithstanding, there's been enough turnover in statewide offices to make term limits a less substantive issue than proponents suggest. Further, since they run on a statewide basis, not in gerrymandered districts, these officials usually face credible opponents at election time.

It's a different story altogether when it comes to the Illinois House and Senate. In those bodies, gerrymandered districts allow most incumbents to stay as long as they like and rarely, if ever, face a serious challenge.

That's why two other proposed amendments have the powers-that-be in the Illinois House and Senate shaking in their boots.

The Yes for Independent Maps organization has collected enough voter signatures to put a plan for a bipartisan legislative map-drawing process on the fall ballot. Speaker Madigan just last week denounced the proposal to create competitive districts, charging it's a Republican ruse designed to oppress minorities.

There's another proposed amendment that strikes ever harder at incumbents, this one promoted by Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner. His amendment would limit state legislators to eight years in office, slightly modify the size of both the House and Senate and require a two-thirds, rather than three-fifths, vote to override a gubernatorial veto.

Mike Schrimpf, a Rauner spokesman, said the petition drive so far has collected "over 450,000" signatures, far more than necessary to put the issue on the fall ballot.

The petition signatures must be filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections by May 4. Shrimp said the Rauner campaign will file its petition signatures this week. Yes for Independent Maps also will file its petitions soon.

Frankly, the term-limits proposal would not be so important if Illinois actually enjoyed competitive elections in legislative races. More than 90 percent of incumbents are re-elected, well over half of them usually without opposition. If Illinoisans are faced with that kind of sclerotic status quo, term limits would be useful in bringing new people and fresh insights to the General Assembly.

Together or by themselves, these citizen initiatives take direct aim at the professional political class that has misruled Illinois for so long. That's why the insiders will do whatever they can to prevent both issues from coming to a vote, first by challenging the validity of the signatures and, if that fails, by asking the courts to remove them from the ballot.

With the petition filing deadline just days away, expect to hear a lot more about term limits and bipartisan legislative maps in the coming weeks. They both represent declarations of war on the establishment, and the fight will be bitter.

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