Amendments for the people pale against those by the people

Map of Illinois state legislative districts in the Chicago area, which was adopted in June 2011. [Illinois Redistricting website, ilhousedems.com]

Map of Illinois state legislative districts in the Chicago area, which was adopted in June 2011. [Illinois Redistricting website, ilhousedems.com]

Four constitutional amendments currently under discussion offer a sharp contrast between responsible efforts by grassroots groups to fix a clearly broken state government and cynical ploys by politicians manipulating the process in order to curry favor with voters.

There is one from each column among two sets of amendments now under discussion. Under the heading of tax reform, there’s an amendment allowing a progressive income tax backed by a broad coalition of civic groups and House Speaker Michael Madigan’s proposal for a tax surcharge on millionaires. Under legislative reform, there’s a redisticting reform amendment sponsored by a another broad coalition and a term limits amendment backed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.

Looking them over, it suggests that in a more perfect world, politicians would have less concentrated power, and voters would have more ways to make their voices heard.

A Better Illinois, a statewide coalition of over 100 organizations, is pressing the state legislature to put an amendment on the November ballot removing the state constitution’s prohibition on a graduated income tax, which has higher rates for higher income earners.

It’s a fairer system and does a better job of meeting the state’s revenue needs, ABI argues. A “fair tax” could be designed to be revenue neutral and cut rates for the vast majority of taxpayers; it could also raise substantial additional revenue while cutting rates for most people.

ABI has done the patient work of building support across the state and lining up backers in the legislature. You could call it participatory politics — the kind of thing we could use more of.

Then, a couple days after the March 18 primary, Madigan announced out of the blue that he’s proposing an amendment that would put a 3 percent surcharge on incomes over $1 million in order to increase school funding. It looked like he was trying to adopt the populist posture now in vogue while also preempting the broader effort.

ABI reacted diplomatically, welcoming Madigan’s sudden interest in progressivity but reiterating their commitment to getting the fair tax amendment on the November ballot.

What Madigan is up to is anyone’s guess.

“Madigan is an enigma,” said Mary Schaafsma, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Illinois, which backs the fair tax.

“Everything he does is calculated, but he doesn’t share his calculations with anyone.”

We do know that Madigan’s sole concern seems to be protecting his majority in the House of Representatives, and in pursuit of this, he has blocked any consideration of progressive tax reform for a generation. We also know he proposed a reduction of the corporate income tax last year.

But it remains to be seen whether he’ll allow his House to consider extending the income tax increase enacted in 2011, which has saved the state from sailing off the fiscal cliff. It was Madigan who insisted the tax hike start phasing out after three years and blocked Governor Quinn’s efforts to include deductions and credits that would ease the burden for moderate-income families.

If the tax increase winds down, the surcharge on millionaires won’t be much help to the state, said Amanda Kass of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, also part of ABI.

“In 2015 we might tread water, but by 2016 we’ll have another budget crisis,” she said.

Kass also worries about using a constitutional amendment to set specific tax policy: changing the policy would require another amendment, she points out. The fair tax amendment would give the state flexibility to address its revenue needs and the larger concerns of the state’s economy and taxpayers.

Like Madigan, Rauner seems to have grabbed onto an issue that polls well, regardless of its effectiveness, and used it to enhance his political profile. A previous term limits amendment, spearheaded by then-Treasurer Pat Quinn, was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court (voter initiatives are tightly restricted under the state’s constitution). As Eric Zorn has noted, experience with term limits in Ohio indicates it just increases the influence of lobbyists. And while Rauner uses the amendment to bash Madigan, it wouldn’t actually touch the House speaker — if enacted, it would give him eight more years in office.

Illinois does have what might be called a Madigan Problem — as Rey Lopez-Calderon of Common Cause puts it, “the legislative leaders have a chokehold on democracy in the state.” Along with LWV and many other groups, both liberal and conservative, Common Cause is supporting a voter initiative to remove redistricting power from the party in power in the legislature and vest it in an independent commission.

As it stands, “they pack people of color into districts, they pack Republicans into districts, they draw districts based on where one legislator lives,” and districts are drawn to dilute independent challenges, he said. The goal of gerrymandering is incumbent protection, and the result is that few incumbents even face challengers, he said.

Under the current system, “elected officials are insulated from public opinion, and that’s not good for our democracy,” said Michael Kolenc of Yes For Independent Maps, the coalition sponsoring the amendment. “They’re drawn into safe districts and so they’re elected time and again without having to be accountable to their constituents.”

Kolenc said the group is on track to turn in significantly more than the 300,000 required signatures by the May 4 deadline.

“This is a real ballot initiative,” said Lopez-Calderon. “This is the one the politicians are worried about.”

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