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Friday, November 20, 2009

The Putback Amendment

Everyone knows that things in Springfield, Illinois are broken. Everyone knows that the government of the State of Illinois is inefficient and corrupt. That's all true, however, to truly understand the problems in Springfield, we must look at the structure of the legislature.

By its design, the legislature in Springfield consolidates all power in the hands of four people: Tom Cross, Christine Radogno, Mike Madigan and John Cullerton. Those are the Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. Power is consolidated through the process by which bills see the light of day. In the Illinois legislature, there's only one way for a bill to be heard and debated: the rules committee. Not surprisingly, each of those four folks are head of the rules committee for their side in the House and Senate. As such, the head of the two rules committees have carte blanche over what bills will and won't see the light of day. So, if any legislator wants their bill to get a hearing in the House, Michael Madigan must approve. You can see how such a process could corrupt, and does.

Second, there's absolutely no transparency. At the beginning of each legislative session, the legislature is allowed to pass any number of "shell bills." These are bills that literally are blank, or shells. Then, when leadership, Madigan et al, feel it's time for that bill to become law, they go into a backroom somewhere, negotiate, and come out with a full bill. They wait no more than 24 hours and force a vote. Even if a legislator wanted to read the bill, they wouldn't have time. So, bills become law and then media scrutinizes them and leaks all sorts of embarrassing details, only by then it's still law. We're seeing a similar process playing out in the current national health care legislative process.

This process played out to a t in the campaign finance reform legislation. After Blago's indictment, public pressure was so extreme that Madigan et al's hands were forced. They brought a campaign finance reform bill to the floor. Then, at the last minute, they went into a back room, cut a weak compromise, and put a watered down version to the floor. This should have come to no one's surprise. The four people in charge are the main beneficiaries of the current campaign finance structure and they are the ones in charge of "reforming it".

This process also played out in Emil Jones' last term. (he was head of the Senate until this latest term) He was allied with Blago. Meanwhile, Madigan opposed Blago. As such, legislation literally came to a halt. All Blago proposed bills were killed in the House and all Blago opposed bills were killed in the Senate. So, nothing got done.

The problem of course was that the power struggles of three pols played out for the entire legislature. That's because the power of the legislature is centered in only four people.

So, what's the solution? Illinois activis, John Bambenek, has proposed the Putback Amendment. Here's what the amendment would do. First, it would create a unicamarel legislature. Each district would be represented by three Representatives. There would still be primaries but a minimum of two candidates would come out for each party. Second, it would impose a term limit of four terms. Each term would last two years. It also eliminates the "shell bill" process and forces only texted bills to the floor. Beyond this, it would create a discharge petition process. If leadership refuses to give a bill a proper viewing, the sponsor can get 25 of 177 legislators to sign a discharge petition and this would force said bill to the floor. Finally, it would create a mandatory seven day period between when a final bill is finalized and voted upon. That way the public would have time to digest it and embarrassing details would come out before it passed not after.

Currently, Bambenek is collecting signatures. He needs 500,000 by May to get the amendment on the ballot in November. If it's on the ballot, it would either need 50.1% of all the voters or 60% of those that vote on the amendment. Typically, far fewer people vote on amendments than vote in total.

Citizens can in fact add amendments to the Illinois constitution as long as they are "structural and/or procedural" in nature. Because that's a vague description, all potential amendments wind up in front of the Illinois Supreme Court. In fact, only six such amendments have been attempted in history and five have been ruled unconstitutional and never passed that stage.

Beyond having its constitutionality challenged, Bambenek expects the validity of each and every signature challenged. There are 102 counties and 110 voting jurisdictions in Illinois. As scuh, the amendment could be challenged in the Illinois Supreme Court and in 110 separate election jurisdictions all simultaneously. If it happens to pass but passes in a close vote, you can also bet
that a vote recount will be requested. All of this will have to adjudicated as well.

The Illinois political machine is the one to challenge this amendment and it will be the machine and its lawyers that will challenge each and every phase of the amendment though Bambenek tells me he's prepared for each and every potential litigative step.

Here's the full text of the bill.

Here's part two and part three of this analysis.

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