This state's ugly version of business-as-usual has a new lease on life.
Owing to its once-proud tradition, Illinois license plates carry the slogan "Land of Lincoln."
In light of a Chicago judge's decision to strike down two citizen-proposed constitutional amendments, it needs revision, perhaps something more like: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."
That may strike some as unnecessarily apocalyptic. But it's hard to be optimistic about this state's future without a dramatic change in — indeed, the destruction of — the political status quo. If Cook County Circuit Judge Mary Mikva's decision is upheld on appeal — and there's no reason other than blind faith to believe it won't, if it is appealed — the status quo not only won't change, it will be strengthened.
Term limits supporters vowed to appeal, but the Yes for Independent Maps group said it is dropping the issue for this year and will try again in 2016 or 2018.
These two citizen initiatives threatened to turn the status quo upside down. One would strip legislative leaders of the ability to draw their own House and Senate district lines, putting the authority in the hands of a bipartisan panel. It's the power to gerrymander legislative districts that allows party leaders to rig most House and Senate elections for a decade in advance. The second would forbid legislators from serving more than eight years in office, an anathema to professional politicians who go to Springfield to feed at the public trough for as long as they can.
Both proposals threaten to drive a stake through the heart of the political establishment. That's why Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan authorized legal challenges to both before their backers even submitted the required number of petition signatures to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Judge Mikva, a scion of Chicago's Democratic political establishment, heard oral arguments two weeks ago. She issued a decision last week that said "any term limits initiative appears to be outside what is (legally) permissible" and that "a differently drafted redistricting initiative could be valid," but that this one goes beyond changing the Legislature's structure and procedure by limiting who could draw the new maps.
The Illinois Constitution requires constitutional amendments affecting the Legislature to address both "structural" and "procedural" issues. Backers of both amendments drafted their proposals to meet that requirement, relying on talented lawyers to advise them on how to survive the inevitable legal challenges.
Judge Mikva's decision, naturally, raises the question of exactly what it would take to meet the exalted legal standard for a constitutional amendment that the Illinois Supreme Court has established.
Thirty years ago, Pat Quinn, now the state's governor, was successful in passing an amendment that reduced the size of the Illinois House by one-third. That move so enraged Illinois' political establishment that state courts haven't given relatively rare citizen initiatives the time of day since then.
That's a cynical perspective, but cynicism is the only armor Illinoisans have to shield them from the corruption, incompetence and chicanery at all levels of government.
Given the stakes involved, the political implications of this decision are many. But The Chicago Sun-Times went to the heart of the issue when it reported that it is "a win for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan." The 72-year-old Madigan has been a member of the Illinois House for 43 years, held the position of speaker for all but two years since 1983 and is the state's most powerful politician.
A masterful tactician, Madigan has operated the levers of power, including the ability to gerrymander legislative districts and dole out favors and campaign cash to underlings, to achieve unrivaled status. At the same time, he has been complicit , if not in charge of, the policies that have driven Illinois to near ruin.
But it's more than just Madigan who is the problem — it's the system that produces and perpetuates people like him. It's that system and those people these amendments targeted. But they win again. Unfortunately, everyone else in this failed state has been consigned to loser status.