The referendum on Con Con: Does Illinois need a new constitution? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

The referendum on Con Con: Does Illinois need a new constitution? 

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"We have thrown off the shackles of an archaic and restrictive constitution, and gained the freedom to deal effectively with the problems confronting Illinois," said Governor Richard Ogilvie in 1970 after voters did away with a century-old constitution. Gone was a bulky document that included specifics on warehouses and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. In came a slender volume that included a comprehensive bill of rights, an environmental protection clause, home-rule provisions for the state's larger municipalities, and a flat-rate income tax that limited the amount corporations paid relative to individuals. But constitutional convention (Con Con) delegates also included a provision that calls for a referendum every 20 years so that voters can decide whether they want another convention called.

This is the year. In November Illinoisans vote on whether to hold a convention that could change all or part of the constitution. According to Con Con proponents, changes are needed to eliminate glaring inadequacies in the present document. Con Con antagonists say any change could wreak havoc on a generally fine work. If 60 percent of voters support the referendum, the convention would take place in 1990.

"In recent years too many incumbent legislators and lobbyists have used their political power to block change and reform," says Patrick Quinn, director of Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a pro-Con Con group. "The legislature has a long history of refusing to propose needed amendments. Ethics, property-tax reform, equitable funding for education, recall, referendum, and utility reform are all issues ignored by the Illinois General Assembly."

Opponents generally say the present constitution is just fine the way it is. "Eighteen years ago we looked at a 100-year-old document," says Lester Brann Jr., president of the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce. "This time it doesn't need fixing. It's not broken." He claims a new convention could create "a document that is almost unworkable. There is no assurance that the good parts of the present constitution would be preserved." A lot of people say they don't want the many good parts tampered with. Brann praises revenue revisions that make the constitution "a solid economic-growth vehicle by providing a stable tax climate." Jacky Grimshaw, a former top adviser to Mayor Harold Washington, cherishes the preamble, "which sets the elimination of poverty as a goal."

"Individual rights may be threatened if a convention were to convene," says Chris LaPaille, who works with the Committee to Preserve the Constitution, a blanket organization that includes the AFL-CIO, League of Women Voters, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Taxpayers Federation, and Illinois Manufacturers' Association. "Women's rights may not be preserved. Illinois' constitution has an equal-rights provision, something the federal constitution lacks," she says. "The black community has joined with us. They fear rollbacks in the civil-rights platform."

Convention proponents argue that not everything in the constitution has to change. In fact, most seem to want to attack it with a scalpel, not an ax. "There is nothing that says that the existing constitution has to be scrapped," says Quinn. "Voters in Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Tennessee have successfully used conventions to adopt specific amendments while keeping most of their constitutions intact."

Anticonvention people warn against the influence of one-issue groups and those outside the mainstream. John Lattimer, former executive director of the Commission on Intergovernmental Cooperation, says "one-issue topics such as tax limitation, gun control, and abortion could dominate the convention." Brann cites the risk of "political extremists and opportunists" taking over the convention. "If a convention is called, you can bet your life there would be dozens of special-interest groups out" he says, though he admits he doesn't know of any radical groups that are now working for the referendum.

"Worries about special-interest groups are overplayed," counters Fred Sperling, of the Chicago Council of Lawyers. "Other states have had conventions in recent years, yet no far-fetched proposals have been passed. And rights protected under federal laws cannot be abridged by the states." Josh Hoyt, president of the Citizens Utility Board, adds, "I don't think people will take changing the constitution lightly. Besides, we have a four-prong check system. First, the people have to vote for a convention. Second, they elect delegates. Third, the delegates vote for any changes. Fourth, the voters must approve any changes submitted by the delegates. We doubt that any views that are not well thought out will pass."

However, there are one-issue groups that have come out in support of a convention. The Citizens Utility Board would like to have an elected Illinois Commerce Commission. "Twelve states have elected commerce commissions," says Hoyt. "Rates in all of those states are lower than those of Illinois. We feel an elected commerce commission is one of the few ways consumers can address changes that must be made in Illinois rate making."

On the other hand, the Chicago Council of Lawyers wants to get rid of the process of electing judges, preferring to have them appointed based on their merits. Sperling cites the Operation Greylord record of judicial corruption, which he claims is the result of the political selection process. "We will not have an independent judiciary as long as we have election of judges," he says.

Convention delegates in 1970 considered judicial selection the major hot potato. Chicago Democratic support was considered vital if the new constitution was to pass, but Mayor Richard J. Daley vowed to oppose it if merit selection of judges was included. The delegates threw the issue to Illinois voters, who stuck with elected judges. "That was 20 years ago," says John Schmidt, cochairman of Con Con for Court Reform. "Support of merit selection is much stronger now than it was then. Now, even people out of the regular Democratic organization, people like Richard M. Daley and Al Ronan, are in favor of it."

Convention opponents know that merit selection of judges is a matter that must be settled by a constitutional amendment, but those opponents who favor merit selection question whether such an amendment would pass at a convention. "Most likely, convention delegates would come from political organizations who would oppose merit selection," says LaPaille. Lattimer claims that "downstaters want election of judges; merit selection is strictly a Chicago issue." Other convention opponents question the value of merit selection itself. "Who says that merit selection is a panacea to judicial corruption, that appointed judges are any less seducible?" asks Grimshaw.

Convention advocate Sperling counters that polls indicate blacks and whites throughout the state favor merit selection, and adds that proposed amendments will include local options so that counties can still elect judges if they choose. "We think it's ironic that legislators who talk about the people's right to vote are afraid to have the people vote on merit selection," he says.

By far the most visible advocate of the referendum is Patrick Quinn, who is considered an all-around populist reformer by his allies and a cause-of-the-week gadfly by his foes. Quinn led the fight in 1978 for the biggest change to date in the 1970 constitution--an amendment that reduced the size of the house of representatives and created single-member districts. Quinn has a long list of other changes he'd like to see. "We need ethics tightening. Illinois has more elected officials and judges convicted of felonies than all other midwest states combined," he says. "There are many political issues. We should abolish double-dipping, force stronger income disclosure, give taxpayers legal standing to sue corrupt officials for money lost to corruption, a ceiling law on property taxes, a sunset law to help remove obsolete tax districts." Quinn also favors amendments that would allow recalls and binding referenda. After all, he says, "the legislature has rarely, if ever, proposed substantive amendments.

"Education is another reason for the convention," he adds. "We need an amendment that would declare education as a fundamental right and would allow citizens to challenge educational institutions. We need an amendment requiring the state to fund half the costs of public education. And we need assurance that every child academically qualified to enter college should be able to do so."

Some opponents have tried to make Quinn an issue. "Pat Quinn is being a demagogue and not providing solutions," Grimshaw charges. Lattimer says, "I can't find anyone downstate who wants this referendum passed besides the 'Quinnies.'" Quinn counters by labeling his adversaries "a committee of every lobbyist and special interest in Springfield, including big utility companies, oil companies, bankers, insurance companies, big labor unions, and a host of local and state politicians."

Convention foes also claim that backers haven't proved there's a need for a new constitution. Most of the issues raised by convention advocates, they say, could be settled through the legislative process. "Much of the criticism, except for merit selection, deals with legislative and not constitutional issues," says Doug Whitley of the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois. "I'm fearful of a Con Con becoming a superlegislature which would just override the General Assembly." Brann also argues that constitutional amendments can be passed in the legislature by three-fifths of both houses followed by three-fifths of the public voting on a referendum. The process may be difficult, he says, but "amendments are purposely difficult. If people don't like what the legislature is doing, they can elect a new legislature."

The nine-month 1970 Con Con cost Illinoisans about $14 million. How much would a 1990 convention cost? Foes say as much as $31 million, taking inflation into account. Quinn claims as little as $5 million. "Eighty percent of the convention expenses last time were due to the cost of special elections," he says. "We could hold delegate elections and a vote on the amended document to coincide with the 1990 primary and general elections." But Brann points out that "a referendum amendment, if passed, could be very expensive. A lot of referenda are antibusiness. Business had to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to fight some bad legislation."

Most observers think that the convention referendum has the support of the majority of voters, if not the required 60 percent. "The average voter is not well informed on the issues," says LaPaille. "The way the question is worded, it sounds patriotic to vote for it." But she and other opponents claim an educational campaign will scuttle the question. "An uninformed public is likely to vote for Con Con, or not vote at all," says Whitely. And Lattimer adds, "I doubt it will pass. People are smarter than that." Proponents, of course, disagree. Quinn accuses Con Con opponents of being "an elitist group who feel the voters are little children who have to be protected against themselves." Sperling says, "We are comfortable with the proposition that the voters can decide for themselves. All we are suggesting is that the people decide."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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