Down the tubes

Down the tubes

Reformers who hoped to turn state politics upside down are once again licking their wounds.

Just because dreams die hard doesn't mean they can't be put out of their misery.

That's why Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner has failed in his multimillion-dollar campaign to persuade the Illinois courts to put an amendment limiting terms of state legislators on the fall ballot.

A state appeals court Wednesday affirmed a lower court decision striking the citizens' initiative from the ballot. Rauner immediately asked the Illinois Supreme Court to review and reverse that decision, and the high court just as quickly rejected that request.

A successful appeal would have required the high court to reverse a 1994 decision in which the high court struck down a term limits ballot initiative that Pat Quinn, now the Democratic governor, was pushing.

In barring Rauner's proposed amendment from the ballot, a three-judge appellate court said it failed to meet the constitutional requirement of making both "structural and procedural changes" in the Legislature.

That Rauner's amendment was drafted by high-priced lawyers specifically to meet that legal test shows just how hard — maybe even impossible — it is to win court approval of an initiative driven by the petition process.

Members of the House and Senate, of course, have the legal authority to put a term limits question on the ballot. If they did, public opinion surveys show that it would pass by an overwhelming margin.

But it's on questions like that — careerism versus voter choice — that legislators' interests are at sharp variance with those of the voters. Critics, of course, suggest that voters are free to throw the rascals out on election day. But the gerrymandering of legislative districts and the lack of competitive elections it produces render that option purely theoretical.

Whatever the outcome of Rauner's appeal, however, there is no question that he has put the issue to good use, some even attributing cynical motives to him in the face of the inevitable court challenge.

Cynicism is no stranger to the politicians of Illinois, even newcomers like Rauner. It is impossible to separate politics from politics.

But even though Rauner must have realized that getting term limits on the ballot was a legal long shot, he's still promoted the issue as evidence of his desire to shake things up.

Just as the pursuit of term limits was a declaration of war on the political status quo, so was a second proposed citizens' initiative that would strip legislators of the authority to draw their own district boundary lines and transfer it to a nonpartisan commission. The same Chicago judge who struck down term limits also drove a legal stake through the heart of an effort to end the partisan map-drawing process. These are the very maps that deny voters real choices in many, perhaps even most, House and Senate races.

Unlike Rauner, who continues to push term limits, redistricting reformers didn't ask an appellate court to review Cook County Circuit Judge Mary Mikva's decision. They suggested they might try again in two years, but it will be just as long a shot in 2016 as it was in 2014.

The failure of both these citizen initiatives demonstrates once again just how hard it can be to change a failed-but-still-powerful status quo.

The Illinois Constitution provides little to no opportunity for citizens to directly make the kind of institutional changes that sitting legislators view as a mortal threat to their pay, perks and power.

Consequently, the state staggers on in the forlorn hope that the same people who created the current mess — and benefit from it — will make everything better after they are re-elected in non-competitive contests.

A little voter-driven rebellion is in order, but it won't happen through term limits.

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