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updated: 10/11/2010 12:27 AM

Will term limits prompt real change?

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  • Gov. Pat Quinn

    Gov. Pat Quinn

  • State Sen. Bill Brady

    State Sen. Bill Brady

  • Term limits?

    Graphic: Term limits? (click image to open)


Illinois' political culture, long derided as corrupt, has traditionally rested tremendous power in the hands of select political insiders for extended periods of time.

That hasn't necessarily worked to constituents' advantage.

Under the leadership of former House Speaker James "Pate Philip, a 28-year incumbent, lawmakers approved 9 percent raises for themselves in the mid-1990s.

Just this year, House Speaker Michael Madigan a representative since 1971 and speaker since 1982 moved to adjourn the legislature without passing a balanced budget, a requirement under the state Constitution. "There are people who say the budget is not balanced. Well that's correct, he told the media on May 27.

There are many, many more examples. And this election, calling for change is a popular theme.

With the growing national tea party movement expressing anger over party politics, and Madigan's long tenure and iron grip of the Illinois legislature a frequent subject of contention, many Democrats and Republicans alike have made standing up to "politics as usual a cornerstone of their campaigns heading into the Nov. 2 election.

"I think there is a lot of talk about term limits in Illinois right now. But it's aimed primarily at the legislature. People are getting exacerbated at performance. Particularly at length, said David Yepsen, director of Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

Yet longevity is a common characteristic of many legislative candidates in the West and Northwest suburbs: The 28 suburban incumbents running for re-election in the General Assembly have served an average of eight years and two have been in the job for close to 18 years each, a Daily Herald analysis shows.

Even so, both major party candidates for governor have called for term limits for elected office holders and an end to "career politicians.

Though both, some would argue, are indeed career politicians themselves.

Gov. Pat Quinn harks back to his days as a gadfly, and his "Eight is Enough term limits campaign in 1994 that called for a constitutional amendment limiting members of the General Assembly's service to eight years per chamber. The campaign collected more than 430,000 signatures but was ultimately blocked from the ballot because of an Illinois Supreme Court decision.

"I think the notion of rotation of office is good, he said last week. "I think my view is that we should have an even handed, even playing field where legislators get eight more years, and they're incumbents and as time goes on, there should be new people.

Quinn wouldn't go so far as to say Madigan the leader of the state Democratic Party and arguably the most powerful lawmaker in Springfield had served too long.

But he did say he would support rule changes within the House and Senate to limit terms of chamber leadership. "I favor anything that imposes reasonable term limits, he said.

The Republican governor candidate, state Sen. Bill Brady, was greeted with roars of approval last month when he told a crowd at the Right Nation 2010 conservative conference in Hoffman Estates it was time to put an "end to career politicians.

Brady, a real estate developer and business owner from Bloomington, has served as a state senator since 2002. Before that, he was a state representative from 1993 to 2001.

Brady's term limit proposal would allow lawmakers to serve just up to that long. He calls for a five-term limit in the House, and a three-term limit in the Senate. House terms are two years each and Senate terms are two to four years, the two-year terms dependent on a constitutionally-mandated rotation.

He said he believes such changes would "stop the current practice of concentrating power in the hands of a few and would "encourage the participation of rank and file legislators.

The Illinois Reform Commission an independent commission established by Quinn following the impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich focused on term limits as one of the ways to reform the state's culture of corruption.

The commission backed a 10-year term limit for House Speaker, Senate President, and House and Senate minority leaders, and a 14-year limit for any of those offices combined. It would not go so far as to back elected term limits.

"A number of commissioners were concerned about the impact of term limits on voter choice, especially in times of crisis when voters might reasonably favor expertise over inexperience, officials wrote in their April 2009 report.

While SIU's Yepsen said he understands the commission's position, he said voters are "running out of alternatives. This system in Illinois is so rigged in favor of the incumbents that voters are fed up with it. And they're exasperated. In terms of campaign finances. In terms of the drawing of district lines. In terms of getting money for campaign contributions. The voters don't have a choice. The politicians are choosing them.

Still, with anger at a boiling point this election, "If I were an incumbent, I'd be trying to do everything I could to take the fuse out of this bomb, Yepsen said.

A Daily Herald analysis found that the 28 suburban incumbents running for re-election in the General Assembly had served an average of eight years.

Sen. Chris Lauzen of Aurora and Rep. Rosemary Mulligan of Des Plaines have served the longest, closing in on 18 years each.

In the House, 11 of 24 suburban representatives running would have been out under Quinn's eight-year limit.

Another seven would have served too long under Brady's terms.

Of the four suburban Senate races, Lauzen is the only incumbent to serve more than one term.

Mulligan called the governors' candidates call for term limits "a distraction from other issues, like the budget.

First elected in 1992, Mulligan said she's been in Springfield "a lot longer than I figured.

Mulligan, a member of several budget and human services committees, said, "I only have a few colleagues that I think would fill the spot when I leave. A lot of good people don't want to do it. Leaders don't encourage you to be undivided problem solvers. If they did, (last year's budget debacle) wouldn't have happened.

Despite such a lengthy tenure, Lauzen said he is in favor of term limits, noting he has twice filed legislation in support of them. Both measures failed to garner enough votes to pass out of committee.

"Having incumbents vote for term limits is kind of like having the chickens vote for the Colonel for dinner, Lauzen cracked. "But I think we need fundamental change. As an incumbent I have such an advantage these days. Raising money and name recognition. It's not so much a fair fight. Proof is the number of people who are running. Incumbents who are running for re-election.

So then why keep running?

Lauzen justified his recurring bids for office as "believing in persistence and perseverance and that his personal knowledge of finance will help the state out of its current fiscal troubles.

Lauzen's work toward getting term limits passed is an example of the legislature's typical resistance to passing such a measure through the General Assembly, Yepsen said.

If voters really want change, he points out, it must be done through a citizen initiative, like Quinn's aforementioned "Eight is Enough efforts, as the state and nation no longer operate under a "citizen legislature where regular citizens would serve for a time and then return to their daily lives after a few years.

That's created a system, he says, that feeds on itself, as elected officials work to maintain what often becomes a lifelong career.

"There's been a 'Washingtonization', he said. "It has to do with the salaries. Their pensions. Most of them couldn't go to work at this stage in their lives and work someplace else with those kinds of perk. They're not inclined to want to give it up. People have very limited options.