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The Cutback Kid

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The Cutback Kid
The Cutback Kid

NBCChicago.com

Gov. Pat Quinn is a longtime supporter of term limits for elected officials, and he pimped the idea again during Sunday’s gubernatorial debate with Bill Brady.

“I believe we should enact term limits on anyone elected to statewide office, the General Assembly and speaker of the House and president of the Senate.”

A few weeks earlier, Quinn told the Associated Press that Brady and House Speaker Michael Madigan would no longer be in office today if a term-limit amendment he supported had gotten on the ballot.

Everyone except the residents of West Lawn agrees Madigan has too much power. But one reason he has so much power is because of Quinn’s first misguided legislative reform -- the Cutback Amendment of 1980.

Before then, every legislative district sent three representatives and a senator to Springfield. Each voter had three votes to spread among three candidates, divide between two, or heap on one. If you “plunked” or “bulleted” for a single candidate, he got all three votes. Each party ran only two candidates per district, leaving room for Republicans to get elected in the city and Democrats to win in the suburbs.

In 1980, Quinn collected over 477,000 signatures to put his “Cutback Amendment” on the ballot. It proposed to replace the 177-member house with 118 representatives elected from single-member districts. The assembly had just given itself a big pay increase, so voters loved the idea of firing 59 legislators at one stroke. The amendment passed by a two-thirds majority. The “Big House,” as the old legislature was nicknamed, was dead. So was political independence.

Now almost all Republicans come from the suburbs and farm counties, and almost all Democrats come from Chicago and southern Illinois. The legislature is polarized along regional lines, and Madigan can ride herd over his members, because he controls the party machine in his quarter of the state. Under the old system, there wasn’t much a Democratic speaker could do to punish a party rebel from Paris or Effingham.

“It seemed like there was more debate before,” said former state Rep. John Matijevich of North Chicago, who served in both the Big and Little Houses.

Susan Catania, the token Republican from the South Side of Chicago, often bucked her party leadership, voting for gun control, for abortion, for the ERA.
 
“There just wouldn’t have been anything they could do to find a strong Republican leader to defeat me,” Catania once said.

Term limits will also create more problems than they solve. For one thing, lobbyists become the political establishment. With legislators coming and going so quickly, lobbyists are the only ones who know how the capitol works.

In Michigan, which limits state representatives to six years, a study found that “lobbyists are now the subject matter experts in many fields, and if a lobbyist lies to a lawmaker on an issue, the lawmaker is gone long before they realize it while the lobbyist stays on.”

If Quinn is concerned that Madigan has too much power, maybe he shouldn’t cut his term. Maybe he should cut the Cutback Amendment.

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