Before the robots marched on Springfield

By James L. Merriner
Published April 16th 2006 in Chicago Sun-Times
In the old days, kids, there was a Republican Party in Chicago. No, really. Your grandpa wouldn't kid you about that.

See, we had this funny way of electing people to the Illinois House. Each district sent three people to Springfield, but almost always two came from one party and the third from another. That meant we had liberal Republicans from Chicago and independents from Downstate. Heck, there were even Democrats from DuPage County.

That all changed after 1980 when voters passed an amendment to the state constitution. It chopped the size of the House from 177 to 118 members, and they all were elected from single-member districts. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Reformers never seem to anticipate the actual consequences of their reforms. You might have noticed that already. The so-called Cutback Amendment killed off the liberal Republicans, the ornery independents. The lawmakers today are robots. They just vote as party bosses tell them. So now some people are passing around petitions to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to turn back the clock to the old General Assembly. Who are these people? A strange mix of conservatives, libertarians and greens. Will it work? I don't know.

The Four Tops run the show

This mess got started when the politicians did something too sneaky even for them to get away with. Back in 1978, the legislators waited until the November elections were safely over, then voted themselves a 40 percent pay increase. They even did it in a way to make it look like the governor, Jim Thompson, was against it. Actually, Big Jim was in on the deal from the start. You're not surprised, are you?

We had this goofball president then, Jimmy Carter. He denounced the Illinois politicians for busting his anti-inflation guidelines with their 40 percent raise. Voters were so mad that they threw a bunch of politicians out of office by passing the Cutback Amendment. The idea was that it would save taxpayers money. That's what the reformer who pushed it, Patrick Quinn, said. He's now the lieutenant governor.

You go down to Springfield now to watch the Legislature in action and it's pathetic, really. The members just sit around waiting for the Four Tops and the governor to cut their deals. The Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate are called the Four Tops, get it? No? The Four Tops, a big rock group from the '60s. Never mind.

Used to be, you wanted to pass a law, sometimes you had to put together a coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents. That's called democracy. Now the members vote however the Four Tops say. If not, they don't get their crucial endorsements and campaign funds.

Don't take my word for this, kids. Abner Mikva, a Democrat, is a former congressman and former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals here. Jim Edgar, a Republican, was governor during the 1990s. Five years ago, they headed up a 70-member task force with some impossibly ponderous title. Their job was to study the effects of the Cutback Amendment.

They concluded that the amendment enhanced the power of the Four Tops, and of the special interests that finance the Four Tops, at the expense of the people. What's more, the current system locks more incumbents into safe seats. With a lack of electoral competition, no wonder voter turnout keeps declining. Don't forget -- the amendment was supposed to reduce the influence of Machine politics.

The task force recommended going back to the old way of three-member districts under what was called "cumulative voting." This system, unique to Illinois, had been set up in 1870. It's a bit complicated. Each voter had three votes, to be split any way he or she liked among three or more nominees. Often, the majority party in a district nominated two people and the minority party one.

In Fairfield, way Downstate near Carbondale, a former Republican state committeeman named Robert Redfern is running the drive to restore the 177-member House. He says his group, Illinois Forum, is "better than halfway home" in gathering the 288,000 signatures needed by the deadline of May 7. The "Redfern Amendment" is supported by the National Taxpayers Union of Illinois, based in Chicago, and other groups.

The Redfern Amendment has a twist, though -- not only would the old House come back from the dead, but the Legislature would meet only every other year, not every year. That's how the General Assembly did business until 1971.

Back to the old way?

Redfern says the amendment will eliminate "full-time professional politicians who make back-room deals for a living. It will force legislators to set two-year budgets, address and solve important issues, and return to their home districts, saving Illinois taxpayers billions of dollars that would have been spent on pork barrel projects."

Well, maybe. The Cutback Amendment was supposed to save money too. Biennial sessions would give politicians less time to spend our money, but it probably would just make them spend it even more frantically. By the way, only six states still have biennial sessions.

Jim Nowlan, a former state representative from Toulon and a member of the Mikva-Edgar task force, also observes that "biennial sessions would increase the power of the executive, which may have too much power as it is."

In any case, even if the amendment gets enough signatures, lawsuits no doubt will be filed asking the Illinois Supreme Court to throw it off the ballot. Incumbents holding power under the present system will not want to give it up.

A fine man named Steve Neal used to cover politics for the Sun-Times. He told me once that the Cutback Amendment was the worst thing ever to happen to the General Assembly, but I didn't agree. Steve died a couple of years ago. I wish I could tell him he had been right as usual.

Chicago author James L. Merriner is writing a biography of former Gov. George Ryan, who was Speaker of the last 177-member "big House" in 1981-83.