Given recent headlines, it's hard to imagine characterizing Illinois government as efficient or forward-looking.
But the Illinois Constitution approved 50 years ago this week contained a credo for environmental protection that was a national harbinger. It afforded equal protection of the laws — prohibitions on rules that arbitrarily discriminate — as well as due process of law. With little discussion, it protected the rights of women in sharp contrast to the bitter fight over ratification of the federal Equal Rights Amendment a decade later.
For governance, it loosed chains forged in its 1870 predecessor which limited borrowing and erased state regulation of minutia and archaic industries. Its crown jewel was granting broad home-rule powers to larger cities, letting local residents decide how to administer city hall without Springfield interference.
“The example that they always used was, when the city of Chicago wanted to change the color of the lights on squad cars, they had to get a law passed to do it,” said Charles Wheeler III, who covered the 1969 “Con-Con” in his first major assignment for the Chicago Sun-Times.
The choice was stark for the 1.12 million who voted “yes” in the Dec. 15, 1970, special election — a 57% majority. They decreed that the 1870 constitution and its restraints were obsolete.
Whether those voters thought it would still be a vibrant document a half-century hence, it's likely none could foresee the extent of the problems facing the state today. Crushing debt that has elicited bond-house ratings just above junk status includes a $140 billion shortfall in the state's employee pension programs. There's a self-perpetuating consolidation of power in the General Assembly where many bemoan that lawmakers ensure political survival by drawing their own election districts.
Finally, there's the corruption in the highest political echelons, from two governors in a row spending time in federal prison to the admission by utility giant ComEd last summer to participating in a decade-long bribery scheme that implicates House Speaker Michael Madigan, who began his career as a 1969 Con-Con delegate. The Chicago Democrat, whose subsequent 50-year House tenure has seen him become the longest-serving legislative leader in U.S. history, has not been charged with a crime and denies any wrongdoing.
Are the state's political foibles and governmental failures constitutional fare? Tangentially, yes. Years of shortchanging pensions by governors and lawmakers means the budget must contribute each year up to one-quarter of its general funds budget, in the neighborhood of $9 billion, to try to catch up. A 2011 cost-saving law to reduce payouts was struck down as a violation of the constitution's bar on reducing promised pension benefits.
Just last month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, took his plan for generating more revenue through a progressive income tax to voters. It required a constitutional amendment because the 1970 charter requires taxes on income be at the same flat rate. Its spectacular defeat underscored one of the major problems with finding solutions to state troubles: hyper-partisanship, sometimes veering into the exaggerated and untrue.
That atmosphere of political vituperation falls in sharp contrast to the confluence of events in 1968: Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie wanted an income tax for a much-needed boost in revenue. Democratic Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley wanted home rule authority. People on both sides of the spectrum agreed the century-old document hindered progress.
To Pat Quinn, the dissonance is a reason to open a Con-Con. The Democratic governor from 2009 to 2015 has spent a good part of his career out of office orchestrating campaigns for constitutional amendments to enact term limits, independently drawn legislative district maps and his personal favorite, direct citizen initiative.
“There would be interest groups that say, over their cold dead body, no, we can't do this, but I don’t think voters look at it that way,” Quinn said. “They would see this as a fresh look by people who aren’t burdened by having to be reelected. You weren’t reelected as a Con-Con delegate. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Quinn has made the most of the current charter. He burnished his reputation by leading the campaign for the constitution’s lone citizen-driven amendment, in which the size of the House of Representatives was cut by one-third in 1980, fueled by anger over a legislative pay raise. He jumped into the fray, advocating for a Con-Con in 1988, the first time the question went on the ballot because of a requirement that voters be asked whether to convene a new convention at least every 20 years.
Ann Lousin, fresh from law school in 1968 when she served as a research assistant at Con-Con, believes it would take a unique political alignment similar to that of the late 1960s to generate interest for a Con-Con.
“We don’t need a new Con-Con, it would be doomed to failure, the public would never adopt the call," said Lousin, who has written extensively on the constitution during 45 years as a professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
First, the current document is sound and whatever ails the state can be remedied legislatively, she said. Second, she said, lack of consensus leads to people talking past each other.
“I saw what happened in 2008,” Lousin said, referring to the last 20-year discussion over a new convention. “The people who wanted a Con-Con were so divided as to why. The libertarians wanted it to restrict government and the progressives wanted it to provide more services.”
And like closing the barn door after the horse is out, once delegates are seated, there's no reining them in, said Wheeler, the reporter who is now professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield.
“The fear is that the things that are in there that are good might be taken out by a convention, because you really can’t limit a convention,” Wheeler said. “You might want to say, ‘Well, we only want the convention to look at the pension provision clause.’ But I think the convention is an autonomous operation. Once they’re sworn in, they can do whatever they want.”