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The state charter is showing its age and its shortcomings

Fifty years ago this morning, Illinoisans awoke to learn that they had approved a new state constitution in a special election the day before.

The new state charter replaced one that was 100 years old and was hailed as a breakthrough by other states that had attempted to replace antiquated constitutions only to be smacked down by the voters. Seven of the previous 12 attempts to replace state constitutions — in states as diverse as New York, Maryland and New Mexico — were defeated by the electorate.

In Illinois, delegates to the constitutional convention that created the new document opted to separate four issues that had been considered controversial at the time and have them voted on separate from the proposed constitution.

It proved to be a wise strategy, as the constitution was approved statewide (although not in many downstate counties), but the four other questions — to appoint judges, lower the voting age to 18, abolish the death penalty and eliminate cumulative voting in Illinois House elections — were defeated.

Ironically, the tide of public opinion has turned over the last 50 years on three of those once-controversial issues. Only the election of judges continues.

Although the 1970 constitution was hailed at the time for bringing Illinois out of the governmental dark ages — it was favored by Republicans and Democratic leaders and most major interest groups — it has proven to be flawed.

The state still does a poor job of funding public schools, relying on despised property taxes and always-uncertain state funding. Illinois’ pension system is a mess, in part because the constitution did not mandate equal funding for equal payouts. And hot-button issues today, including term limits for legislators and the way legislative districts are drawn, weren’t hot-button issues then.

There were successes in the 1970 constitution, including environmental-protection guarantees, a ban on discrimination in employment and housing, expanded home-rule powers for cities, and a commitment that mass transportation was “an essential public service.”

At 50 years of age, Illinois’ once-modern constitution is showing its age and its shortcomings. Yet the bipartisan consensus for another constitutional convention doesn’t exist among political leaders, although it appears to among voters.

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