Illinois voters got just 1 proposed constitutional amendment on ballot in 52 years

Illinois voters got just 1 proposed constitutional amendment on ballot in 52 years

During the past decade, state lawmakers have asked to change the Illinois Constitution six times while voters have failed to get any changes on the ballot. In 52 years, Illinoisans have only gotten one amendment question before voters. That needs to change.

In the past 10 years, the Illinois General Assembly has put six constitutional amendments on the ballot. Voters have that same power, but have failed to get a single proposed amendment on the ballot in that time.

Look at the longer timeline, and since 1970 when citizens gained the ability to petition for constitutional changes they have succeeded just once. Many other attempts have failed, most recently thwarted by cronies of state lawmakers.

This November, Illinois voters will again decide whether to grant a constitutional change state lawmakers are pushing. Amendment 1, a so-called “workers right amendment,” does much more than ban right to work. It would give government union bosses constitutional rights to negotiate and strike over a nearly endless array of issues and trump state law – powers no other state offers unions.

The six constitutional changes driven by state lawmakers include Amendment 1 and in 2020 a change to allow graduated income taxes, including the ability to tax retirement income, to replace the state’s flat tax. Voters roundly rejected the “Fair Tax” proposal sought by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and backed by $58 million from his personal fortune.

Compare six lawmaker initiatives in 10 years to what happened to changes sought by Illinois voters.

In 2016, over 500,000 voters signed a petition to place their own amendment on the ballot, taking redistricting power away from state lawmakers and giving it to an independent redistricting commission. The proposal had the support of a majority of voters, according to polling done by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. That amendment was thrown off the ballot by the Illinois  Supreme Court after it was challenged by an ally of indicted former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

The same thing happened in 2014. Nearly 80% of Illinoisans supported term limits for lawmakers, and a petition to amend the constitution gained more than enough signatures to satisfy constitutional requirements. But that amendment was also stricken from the ballot by an Illinois appellate court, taking away voters’ opportunity to weigh in on the issue. The same Madigan ally fought the initiative.

So why can special interests get their pet policies placed on the ballot while everyday Illinoisans get thwarted every time it looks like they might succeed? It’s because the Illinois Constitution has been interpreted to limit citizen-initiated petitions more severely in Illinois than in any other state.

Citizen amendments in Illinois are more restricted

The Illinois Constitution provides for amendment through citizen-initiated referendums, but those changes are limited to “structural and procedural subjects contained in Article IV,” the article that covers the makeup and powers of the legislature. In practice, this limitation means citizen-initiated amendments very rarely make it to the ballot because the Illinois Supreme Court has strictly interpreted this limitation.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states allow for direct citizen-initiated constitutional amendments. The subjects that can be amended by initiative in Illinois are narrower than in any of those states.

In part because of its unique limits on the initiative process, there has only been a single successful binding constitutional amendment initiated by the voters of Illinois. That amendment reduced the size of the Illinois House of Representatives from 177 to its current 118, passing in 1980.

Numerous attempts have been made to get other amendments on the ballot. All have failed.

Other states are not nearly as restrictive. In Missouri and Ohio, initiatives will pass muster so long as they only cover a single subject matter. In Michigan, an initiative is only limited to those “laws which the legislature may enact.”

The citizens’ initiative was meant as a way to circumvent the legislature when it was unlikely to act. But the fact only one amendment has made it to the ballot in 52 years, combined with the fact policies with consistent support from the public do not have a chance in the General Assembly, illustrate why the restrictions on the amendment process need to be relaxed.

Direct democracy has shown positive results

Some are wary of popular referendums as a method of reforming the constitution, which echoes the Founding Fathers’ skepticism of direct democracy in general. But after more than a century of experience with popular referenda in the United States, that history demonstrates what limits should be placed on Illinois amendments.

Skeptics of popular democracy worry people will be unable to restrain themselves when it comes to spending and tax policy, wanting to spend on lavish government benefits without the ability to pay for them. That is exactly what has happened in Illinois without a popular referendum.

Research from professor John G. Matsusaka suggests popular referendums tend to result in more fiscally conservative policy than otherwise, especially when referendum approval is required for spending. There is some concern special interests will be able to manipulate voters more easily than would a legislature. Matsusaka found special interest groups, such as corporations and labor unions, tended to succeed less often when taking a position on a citizen-initiated ballot measures than they did when taking a position on proposals that originated with the legislature.

Reform can be modest

While the experiences with popular democracy demonstrate broad-scope, citizen-initiated amendments can work, Illinois need not remove all limits. Reform can be focused on the aspects of governing that lawmakers are least likely to change because of conflicts of interest inherent in the system. Voters should be authorized to enact reforms when lawmakers are unlikely to do so. That means empowering voters to decide policies on term limits, redistricting and the area most problematic for Illinois: public pensions.

Illinois lawmakers have been completely unwilling to take up pension reform since the Illinois Supreme Court in 2015 struck down their statutory attempt. The inaction is despite polls showing popular support for reform. Lawmakers have labeled reform impossible because of the pension protection clause of the state constitution, but they have made no real attempt to amend the clause to put the question before voters.

The General Assembly has managed to submit Pritzker’s progressive tax amendment and now the so-called “workers’ rights” amendment, but nothing to reform the pension protection clause. Lawmakers are in Springfield to serve their communities, but their own pensions are protected by the clause: a clear conflict of interest, and exactly the scenario citizen-initiated amendments were intended to guard against.

Illinois’ citizen-initiated amendment provision should be reformed to allow citizens a chance to weigh in on the pension protection clause. Citizen amendments also should be allowed to amend both procedural and structural subjects of the legislative article of the constitution, if not more.

Illinois lawmakers have governed under this constitution since it was adopted 52 years ago. In the past few decades the state has lost its credit rating and in the past eight years its population.  Illinois generally seems to be on the wrong track.

It is time to give the people of Illinois a chance to put some restraints on the legislature and fix their own state.

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