State House change deserves a look
Published April 26th 2001 in Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette
Voters sure took it out on the Illinois House of Representatives in 1980 when, upset about a sneaky vote by legislators to raise their own pay, the citizenry responded by slashing the House membership from 177 to 118. That Cutback Amendment will forever be the legacy of populist lawyer Pat Quinn, who organized the petition drive to get it
on the ballot.

The cutback had other results, however. It didn't just evict 59 members from the House and reduce spending in the lower chamber. It unintentionally served to rid the House of many of its most independent thinkers, those who were not beholden to either the Democratic or Republican party bosses.

Instead of having three members from each of 59 legislative districts -- including one from the minority party in that area -- the House was reorganized into 118 single-member districts. That had several dismal consequences for state government. It consolidated the power of the two partisan House leaders, so much so that they not only have control over the bills that get heard and passed, but they also have control (through campaign contributions) over who gets campaign support, and even who gets elected. That same consolidation of power has increased the amount of money spent in legislative campaigns, making fund-raising and political action committees a bigger factor in state government. Too often, legislative candidates have little control over how much or how money is spent on their campaigns. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign money is funneled through the offices of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan or Republican leader Lee Daniels.

There is no greater problem in Illinois government than the onerous authority wielded by the legislative leaders.

A bill stalled in the House would allow for a statewide referendum in 2002 on returning cumulative voting in Illinois House elections. The bill, which has support from Democrats and Republicans, including Rep. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, is not perfect. It calls for the creation of 39 large, three-member districts, not the 59 districts the House had for years before the Cutback Amendment.

But the proposal is a worthy starting point of discussion. And we congratulate those, such as former Illinois state Rep. Abner Mikva, and current members such as Winkel,  who have encouraged a return to multi-member House districts. The Legislature should heed their call.