Editorial | 'Shell' bill packs wallop

Editorial | 'Shell' bill packs wallop

When it comes to the serious business of government in Illinois, there's always time for gaming the system.

No one should be shocked to discover politics sometimes intrudes on politics.

So there's no point to pretending that a recent piece of legislation proposed by Democratic state Rep. Carol Ammons is about anything other than feathering both her nest and that of the Democratic Party.

Ammons' bill — H.B. 531 — calls for a statewide change in election years for the offices of county clerks, treasurers and sheriffs.

Under her proposal, the next time those offices are up for election, the winners would serve two-year terms. In that way, when those three offices come up again for election, they would be aligned with other county offices, including auditor and state's attorney, that coincide with presidential election years.

As election schedules now stand, the sheriff, clerk and treasurer run in off-year elections that coincide with the statewide races for governor, secretary of state and comptroller.

Ammons' professed reason for changing the schedule is that presidential election years draw higher turnouts — the more voters who participate, the better.

Here's what's really going on: Presidential election years are perceived as drawing higher turnouts of voters inclined to vote for Democratic candidates. The consensus is that while off-year elections feature high turnout races — governor, U.S. senator, statewide offices — they don't generate as much interest among only marginally enthusiastic voters as do presidential election years.

A secondary reason — who knows? Maybe it's the primary reason — lurking behind Ammons' bill is that her husband is the Champaign County clerk. Theoretically, he would have a better chance of being re-elected if his campaign coincides with a presidential race, rather than a governor's race.

Some readers may be shocked by the notion that many public officials, like almost everyone else, look out for No. 1 rather than the general welfare when it comes to matters like this. But many states, particularly Illinois, have a long history of politicians pursuing self-interest above all else.

Whatever her motivation, Ammons' political timing could not be better.

Democrats have a vice-like grip on state government — a governor, super-majorities in both the House and Senate and a Supreme Court majority.

What better time could there be to take steps to move off-year county elections to presidential years. It's a classic example of using partisan power to extend partisan power.

The General Assembly is winding down to the end of a busy session that features a series of unfinished major issues — Pritzker's budget and progressive income tax constitutional amendment, legalization of marijuana, sports gambling and all that entails and a slew of tax increases that will coincide with a mammoth infrastructure spending bill.

Where Ammons' bill fits into that traffic jam is difficult to determine.

But there are some intriguing factors surrounding it.

At the beginning of every term, House Speaker Michael Madigan introduces many dozens of what are called "shell bills" that purport to make technical changes in state law. But what they really exist for is to be amended at some future date and then slipped into the legislative sausage making in the final hours.

In the case of Ammons' bill, it started out as legislation filed Jan. 18 by Madigan to "make(s) a technical change in a section of the campaign finance article concerning definitions."

This legislative nothing has bounced around from the rules committee to the executive committee back to the rules committee and then back again to the executive committee.

Suddenly, on May 14, Ammons proposed an amendment to the technical change bill to make it a substantive bill that would serve her and Madigan's partisan interests.

As it stands now, H.B. 531 is awaiting action in the executive committee.

Substantively, the legislation represents an attempted partisan power grab that would undermine a carefully conceived status quo.

Politically, it's a shrewd move by the Democrats to use their political dominance of Illinois to become even more dominant.

No one, however, should be fooled into thinking what's best for the public or the democratic process has anything to do with H.B. 531.

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