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The Cause Of -- And Solution To? -- All of Illinois' Term Limits Problems

By Jon Graef in News on Sep 8, 2013 7:30PM

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, known as the chairman of R8 Capital Partners, released a petition calling for term limits for lawmakers in Springfield.

And while that sounds well and good -- a certain Gov. Pat Quinn, when he was Illinois state treasurer back in 1994, gathered nearly half a million signatures calling for term limits before being stymied by a state Supreme Court ruling saying term limits were unconstitutional -- the reality of Rauner's petition seems more problematic than its populist position would entail.

Rauner's petition is the latest salvo in a twenty-year fight to bring term limits to Illinois. So what's the problem?

First off: what does Rauner's petition actually call for?

No person may serve more than eight years in the General Assembly. No person may be elected or appointed as Senator or Representative if upon completion of the term of office that person will have been a member of the General Assembly for more than eight years. Time served in the General Assembly before the session beginning in January 2015 does not count toward the eight-year service limitation


The purpose of this amendment is: (1) to establish term limits for members of the General Assembly; (2) to require a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the General Assembly to override the Governor’s veto of legislation; (3) to abolish two-year senatorial terms; (4) to change the House of Representatives from 118 representatives to 123 representatives; (5) to change the Senate from 59 senators to 41 senators; and (6) to divide legislative (senatorial) districts into three representative districts rather than two.

Sounds reasonable, right? Well, as the expression goes, the devil is in the details, and the details of Rauner's petition are giving many legislators pause.

As the Sun-Times directly put it:

Rauner launched a new PAC, the Committee on Legislative Reform and Term Limits, which aims to put a question on the November 2014 ballot that would require term limits for state lawmakers and restructure the General Assembly...

Soon after Rauner launched the ballot proposal, critics questioned whether how he could both chair a PAC with no limits on contributions at the same time that he is a candidate in a campaign and must abide by the contribution cap.

Because of those details, Rauner has been criticized by people who you would think would make natural allies on this issue. Bill Daley called Rauner's plan "a gimmick," while Pat Quinn accused Rauner of being a Johnny-come-lately on the issue.

But back to the PAC.

The Trib further breaks it down:

While separate from his fund for governor, under state campaign laws the committee could be used to benefit Rauner's campaign for governor...

Traditional political action committees that support candidates for election also have limits on donations. But because Rauner's term limits PAC is pushing a proposed question for the November 2014 general election ballot, there are no limits on what donors may contribute.

That means Rauner could give unlimited amounts of his own money to his PAC, ostensibly pushing term limits while also helping to promote his candidacy for governor. Meanwhile, his opponents would continue to be hamstrung by state donation limits.

Rauner has yet to give any of his own money to the committee for term limits, but said Tuesday that he plans to be a major supporter in terms of dollars and time. Still, he maintained the effort is separate from his bid for the state's highest office.

And now we see where the problem is. While term limits are a popular idea, using them as a pretense for backdoor campaign financing is probably not.

While that criticism is specifically aimed at Rauner, the reality of term limits is also decidedly more complicated than the admittedly appealing "throw the bums out" rhetoric would have you believe. A 2007 study from the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield lays out said complications:

There is some evidence that term-limited legislators are less exclusively focused on their own districts, more concerned with statewide issues, and more willing to vote their own beliefs on legislation. They also spend less time campaigning and raising money. These are results that reformers applaud. On the other hand, term-limited legislators do not appear to spend more time studying and developing legislation than their unconstrained counterparts.

Term limits also disrupt relationships among legislators, reduce their understanding of and appreciation for the legislature, and force them to rush their policy agendas. All this makes the legislative process more chaotic, partisan, confrontational, and unpredictable. While many consider these to be negative side-effects of the reform, some term limits supporters are so deeply suspicious of government that they actually welcome this sort of legislative gridlock as a way of restricting government.

That said, the idea of term limits is as popular as it ever was, at least as far as national politics are concerned.

For good reason, at least as far as Illinois is concerned. The state has reached the point where Illinois politicians who called for term limits as a way to freshen up the legislature are now established careerists. As the Associated Press shows:

According to an Associated Press review, 67 of 177 members of the General Assembly have served more than 10 years. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, first elected in 1971, has served as speaker for 28 of the last 30 years. Senate President John Cullerton, another Chicago Democrat, also has served in the legislature since the 1970s.

Quinn, who portrays himself as a political outsider, served as treasurer for four years, lieutenant governor for six, and will be in line to serve 10 years as governor if he wins re-election.

So what's next for Rauner? His petition needs roughly 300,000 signatures to get on the 2014 ballot. Daley says he'll come up with his own plan. The AP says Rauner "would get around it by proposing other reforms that would change the 'structural and procedural' workings of the legislature as well."

No matter what happens, though, the reality is that term limits, as popular as they are, have a steep hill to climb in order to become law. It's been twenty years. What's a few more, give or take?