Is Obama afraid of change for Illinois?

By John Bambenek

The presidential candidate for change has adopted the twin themes of “hope” and “change” for his political campaign. These themes are the creation of David Axelrod, his senior campaign advisor. It was a stroke of brilliance to tap into the widespread disaffection with Washington D.C. and the growing irritation that normal citizens have any say in their federal government. With approval ratings of the U.S Congress being around 9% (in other countries there would be an armed coup by now), the timing was perfect.

However, the same distrust and disgust are just as true with the state government of Illinois. We have a governor under multiple federal investigations, a General Assembly who can never seem to pass a budget and political patronage happening out in the open with no regard to citizens. The gridlock in Springfield is universally despised and all other attempts to reform Illinois have failed. Change is sorely needed for Illinois.

That is why it is disappointing to see the same firm, ASK Public Strategies, which crafted the “candidate for change” was just given a $2 – $3 million contract to oppose a constitutional convention. Among the arguments they will make is that convening a constitutional convention will give power to all the special interests, that the constitution will be made worse and that there is no way to elect good people to a convention. They have already gone so far as telling seniors that a constitutional convention will take their pensions away even though federal law is clear that they can’t. In short, the ads can be reduced to a soundbite, “No. you can’t”.

In November, voters will be able to vote to convene a constitutional convention to amend the state charter. This would allow for the ending of gerrymandering, the practice of politicians picking their voters and not vice versa (see Illinois Congressional District 4’s map for an illustration of how absurd the maps have gotten). Additional changes could be adding the ability of citizens to recall elected officials, a right many states currently already enjoy.

Many of the problems that Illinois face are a direct result of a constitution written in 1970 to create a “strong government”. This allowed politicians to amass incredible power and to engage in rampant and overt corruption. For instance, the Cook County presidency was almost literally bequeathed from father (John Stroger) to son (Todd Stroger) reminiscent of a title of nobility in the Middle Ages. The constitution guarantees state pensions but it was also explicitly written to not require funding of the pensions. This has resulted in the worst funded pension system in the nation. We aren’t even close to 49th place.

The governor can treat budgets as advisory and move money around at will. The leader of a legislative chamber can unilaterally kill a bill with no recourse by other members of the chamber (see Illinois House Bill 1 which was sponsored by over 80% of the Illinois Senate, yet still killed by Senator Debbie Halvorson).

In all this, the citizens are disempowered. Illinois election law is the most restrictive (and unconstitutional) in the Union. Third party and independent candidates are required to get over 10 times more signatures and subject to capricious ballot challenges that keep them from being listed on the ballot. Ballot initiatives are not binding and routinely ignored by politicians.

Even the ballot budget requirement in the Constitution is considered a “moral imperative” when crafting the state budget. This requirement is unenforceable which is how that state gets away with trying to pass a budget $2 billion out of balance. Try considering paying your next property tax bill a “moral imperative” and see how that works out.

Citizens are disempowered and government is dysfunctional. The result has been a grassroots movement comprised of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens and those who normally would not associate with a political party. The citizens are demanding that Springfield change. The question is why the same people running Obama’s campaign are saying, “Change you must fear in”.

John Bambenek is a columnist and author of “Illinois Deserves Better: The Ironclad Case for an Illinois Constitutional Convention.” He can be reached at [email protected]