Potential Illinois constitution convention to be decided by voters

By Crystal Kang

Illinois voters will be asked to support or oppose the assembly of delegates in a potential state constitutional convention at the polls in November.

Proponents of the constitutional convention are hoping the legislatures will discuss and change two issues: the recalling of elected officials and legislative term limits.

“What’s striking is that recall and term limits are both overwhelmingly popular topics within both political parties,” said Brian Gaines, political science associate professor and a member of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Gaines said that even if there was a convention, there’s no guarantee that these two items will be written into the Illinois constitution. The delegates are going to decide which issues to discuss. He added that most Illinois voters do not read that far down the ballot because they aren’t used to voting on serious referenda.

“We don’t often get state-wide ballot initiatives (in Illinois),” Gaines said. “At recent (Urbana city) elections, there were symbolic votes on whether to pull troops out of Iraq. Whether you voted yes or no was meaningless because the county and town don’t make those decisions.”

This presents a problem because three-fifths or the majority of voters must vote “yes” to hold a convention.

The last time Illinois held a convention was in the 1970s. Its goals were to revise many of the archaic details and replace outdated laws with more current ones.

“I worry that the constitutional convention could do more harm than good,” said Jim Nowlan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “Some of the proponents of the convention are calling for (specific) caps on taxation and spending, which aren’t good policies to have in the constitution. In 2009, you can’t know whether the policy should be changed a decade or two decades from now.”

According to the constitution, the proposal to hold a constitutional convention must appear on the ballot every 20 years. There have been 10 amendments to the state constitution since 1970.

State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson said she will vote against holding the constitutional convention.

“The way the constitution is written, it can have amendments,” Jakobsson said. “That, to me, is the way to work for change… to work through the (amendments) we have.”

Kent Redfield, professor of political science at the University’s Springfield campus, said he isn’t very enthusiastic about having a constitutional convention because it leaves the constitution open for too much criticism. Most of the problems Illinois residents have with the law are not structural. Rather, he said citizens need to address the leadership problems.

Other states have similar constitutions and are able to work through its problems by electing the right set of leaders, he added.

Sam Gove, director emeritus of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs and political science professor emeritus, was involved in the 1970 Illinois constitutional convention.

“I think overall we have a good constitution compared to other states,” Gove said. “I don’t think we should open up the whole gamut (of the constitution). Some social issues, such as same-sex marriage, would probably create a debate.”

Gove noted that bringing up these new and controversial issues would affect the integrity and strength of the constitution.

Redfield said in the 1970s there was a realization that the local government was much too weak and taxation was hamstringing developing city and county governments. A modern executive budget was needed, and the State was dealing with a constitution that was 100 years old.

“Now we’re dealing with a 40-year-old constitution that doesn’t have those breakdowns,” Redfield said. “To a certain extent, you’re looking for a magic bullet. Instead of the citizens and government fixing things, they think the state constitution will magically change all these problems.”