Officials debate constitutional convention Wednesday night

By Melissa Silverberg

Illinois voters will need to decide on Nov. 4 whether to hold a constitutional convention, an issue that is bringing much discussion and controversy from both sides.

This issue was the topic of a debate Wednesday between Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and Kevin Semlow, director of state legislation for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Every 20 years, Illinois voters can choose to support or oppose a constitutional convention. The last time such a convention was held was before the passing of the 1970 state constitution.

If a convention is held, cities and municipalities around the state will need to elect delegates to send to Springfield for discussion and debate on all parts of the state constitution.

An important issue Quinn said he would like to have addressed at a constitutional convention is the state’s education system. Problems within the system have resulted in an unequal education system that has not been properly reformed, Quinn said.

“We’ve got to do it ourselves,” Quinn said. “That’s what a constitutional convention is all about.”

Government corruption within the state system is another issue both Semlow and Quinn agreed needs to be addressed, though they proposed different ways.

“We need to put the power of recall in the constitution,” Quinn added. “It keeps elected officials on their toes 365 days a year, not just every four years.”

Quinn cited former Gov. George Ryan’s conviction and current controversy surrounding Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich has an approval rating of 34 percent, his lowest while in office, according to a poll done in September by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV-TV.

“How long do we have to wait?” Quinn asked. “The next time this will be brought up is 2028. Should we really wait another 20 years to get this issue resolved? I don’t think so.”

While Quinn argued that we need a constitutional convention to fix the problems of state government, Semlow said the issues can be solved through amending the current constitution.

“The constitution is the framework of a government,” Semlow said. “I agree that we have a mess in Springfield, but it is not up to the constitution to fix it. There are many things in the constitution that work.”

The cost to hold a constitutional convention was another topic discussed at the debate. Semlow said he estimates the cost of a two-year convention, as was held before the 1970 constitution was passed, would be between $60 million and $80 million.

“This is a very expensive proposition when right now the state of Illinois is flat broke,” Semlow said.

Quinn on the other hand said that a nonpartisan group estimated the cost as low as between $14 million and $23 million, or about $1 per Illinois citizen.

“We don’t need a constitutional convention, we need voters making their voices heard,” Semlow said.

Both members of the debate said issues of corruption and gridlock in the statehouse need to be fixed as they are wasting taxpayers time and money.

The debate was organized by the University’s Civic Leadership Program with help from Kevin Fanning, graduate student.

“Things need to change,” Fanning said. “This is a great way for students to role up their sleeves and get involved in a hands on way.”