Illinois House, Senate play political games on constitutional amendments

By Monique Garcia and Celeste Bott, Chicago Tribune

Despite a flurry of action on ideas to change the Illinois Constitution that includes eliminating the lieutenant governor’s office, overhauling how legislative districts are drawn and setting up a graduated income tax, it’s getting increasingly unlikely voters will have any lawmaker-backed amendments to consider on the November ballot.

A time-tested political strategy is unfolding at the Capitol this spring: push similar but competing measures in the House and the Senate.

Each chamber approves its version and doesn’t take up the other, allowing lawmakers to say they voted for the publicly popular changes even if they had no chance of becoming law.


The gamesmanship was on full display last week, as House lawmakers signed off on a plan backed by Republican Rep. David McSweeney, of Barrington Hills, to eliminate the office of lieutenant governor.

While hailing the move as an opportunity to save more than $1.5 million a year, legislators largely ignored an earlier rejection by the Senate that all but ensures the measure won’t appear before voters this fall.

While the idea has long been held up by members of both parties as a way to streamline government, efforts to do away with the office repeatedly have failed. This time, an unlikely alliance between Republican and African-American senators thwarted the proposal.

As usual, politics is to blame, with both parties complaining about the succession provision that would give control of state government to the attorney general should a governor no longer be able to serve. Opponents contended that could lead to a situation in which a new governor takes office who is from a different political party than the governor chosen by voters.

“That’s a betrayal of what the voters say they wanted,” said Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon. “I don’t think that’s a line we should cross.”

Left unspoken by opponents was the idea that getting rid of the office means there’s one less slot on statewide tickets, where political parties sometimes try to balance gender, geographic and racial considerations.

Sponsoring Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, contended his colleagues should put aside political factors, noting no one came forward to defend the post.


“The fact is in the chamber everybody has said – whether you’ve said it today, you’ve said it a month ago, whether you campaigned 20 years ago – ‘the lieutenant governor needs to go.’ You’ve all said it. You’ve all riled your constituents about it,” Cullerton said. “Today is the day that it could get done.”

On another front, Senate Democrats pushed through a proposal asking voters to amend the highly politicized way legislative boundaries are mapped.

Under the measure, lawmakers largely would still be in control of mapping, but the process would be opened up through public hearings. It also aims to keep minority communities such as Chinatown united, instead of being sliced into multiple districts as it has in the past.

Republicans argued the proposal did little to change the current system and said lawmakers should butt out. They said changes should fall to a separate petition drive led by various interest groups that have long called to take politics out of the equation.

Dubbed the Independent Map Amendment, supporters need about 300,000 valid signatures to get proposed changes on the ballot. Lawmakers, on the other hand, must approve suggested changes by a three-fifths margin in both chambers to put a question before voters.

“This amendment really is an attempt at the appearance of reasonableness while continuing to effectively perpetuate the status quo,” Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said of the legislative proposal. “I think we need to let the Independent Map go forward and not dilute, not confuse.”

But sponsoring Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, countered that proposal did not provide enough flexibility to account for the state’s diverse population, saying it’s not as easy as simply dividing districts into equal squares.

“The problem with the independent proposal that’s being floated around is that it does not observe that we have been raised as a legislature that we have to respect the diversity that we have,” Raoul said.

The Senate approved the question 39-19, but there’s little indication the House will take it up. Indeed, House Democrats have their own idea — turning over the mapping process to a separate commission appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court.

That version has yet to be voted on by the full House, and lawmakers face a May 9 deadline to get constitutional amendments on the ballot. And legislators are not in session this week due to Passover.

Also waiting are dueling measures to eliminate the state’s flat income tax rate in favor of a graduated system based on income. While popular with voters, it may be difficult for some lawmakers to support during an election year because it would amount to a tax increase on the wealthy.


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