Reform Illinois? Do it yourself

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Tribune photo by Zbigniew Bzdak / December 9, 2009

Brain dead politicians applaud themselves.

Only politicians as stone deaf and rock dumb as the people we
constantly send to Springfield could congratulate themselves on the
pathetically defective campaign-finance reform they enacted.

"It's a start," someone said as they celebrated Gov. Pat Quinn's
recent signing of the state's first law limiting campaign
contributions. It's like saying that the first arthropods that crawled
out of the ocean 425 million years ago were a start on the road to
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

I suppose we should be thrilled that
the very politicians who benefit from campaign contributions felt
enough heat to make this barely symbolic nod at reform. Rather than
thrilled, though, I marvel at how the politicians can muster up the
impudence to hand us a barrel of offal and act like it's a bag of
baubles. Especially because they did it Wednesday, the one-year
anniversary of the arrest of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Thanks, guys, for the reminder of the marked resemblance among all of you.

I'm
not such a purist that I reject the possible because it's not perfect.
The new law does achieve something. It limits donations from
individuals to $5,000 for each candidate for the primary and general
elections. Corporations and unions would be limited to $10,000 each
election and political action committees to $50,000 per election. The
law requires politicians to file quarterly reports on their fundraising
and spending rather than semiannually. Candidates and special interest
groups will have five business days to report campaign donations of
more than $1,000.

Yes, nice going. But the gaping hole in the law is the exemption given to legislative leaders: The Four Tops
-- the legislative leaders of both parties in both houses -- will be
allowed to spend unlimited amounts from their special leadership
campaign accounts on individual legislators in highly competitive
general election races. It means that the leadership will keep its iron
grip on every anxious legislator in a tough race. In practice, it means
House Speaker Michael Madigan, perhaps the most dictatorial legislative
leader in recent memory, will become ever more autocratic. (It must be
noted that Republicans as a group opposed the legislation on these grounds.)

This
is not good news for Illinois. As much as Madigan distinguished himself
by opposing Blagojevich -- but not enough, and most of it was personal
-- one of the main reasons for Illinois' impending financial collapse
is the Legislature.

Blagojevich couldn't have done as much
damage all by himself. It's so great a financial mess that, according
to one bond-rating house, Illinois finds itself in almost the same
dismal shape as the nation's most fiscally balled-up state -- California.

We
tried fixing the system by calling for a constitutional convention to
rewrite the rules that elevate Madigan above the commonweal. But the
well-financed special interests such as the public school teachers
union, joined by the well-intentioned who feared a runaway convention,
managed to defeat the referendum measure establishing a convention.

Now,
about the only tool that we're left with is something less sweeping but
equally necessary: a referendum on structural changes in the
Legislature that will create real reform. Two such proposals have been
made: the Illinois Fair Map Amendment and the Putback Amendment.

The Fair Map proposal, sponsored or endorsed by such reformers as the Illinois League of Women Voters, the Better Government Association
and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, would allow an
independent commission to draw the state's legislative district
boundaries after the 2010 census in an open and transparent process. It
is designed to take the process out of the hands of the politicians who
benefit from a favorable redistricting and end the ridiculous coin flip
that determines which party "wins." (Its Web site is ilfairmap.com.)

The
Putback Amendment, sponsored by Springfield political reformer John
Bambenek, is a broader package of changes, including term limits, a
seven-day viewing of all legislation before a vote is taken, equal
ballot access for third-party and independent candidates and
redistricting changes. (Its Web site is putbackamendment.com.) Bambenek
has endorsed the Fair Map proposal, but argues that it doesn't go far
enough.

My apologies if there are other proposals I haven't
seen. But we've got a few months to sort it all out and examine the
pros and cons of those on the table. We didn't get a constitutional
convention, but allowing the 2010 election to pass without giving
voters a chance to reform the Illinois General Assembly would be the
final straw.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune. 

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  • All I can say is we are coming for these guys and we're bringing our ballots........

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