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Commentary: Do-nothing lawmakers make case for term limits

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 9, 2010 - Those most adamantly opposed to term limits keep building a stronger case for them than any proponent could muster.

The entrenched Illinois politicians reject relatively modest changes that would rein in their reign. They betray responsible governance and future taxpayers by choosing deeper debt over fiscal fortitude. They cling to their perk of awarding scholarships to a select few even as they make higher education less affordable and attainable for thousands who lack the means and the moxie to attract legislator largesse.

In their zeal to protect their clout, lawmakers in Springfield beg us to target it. As they persist in cynically manipulating the process, they invite the equally callous backlash of abbreviating their tenure by law instead of by ballot.

Legally mandated term limits for governors, lawmakers and other officials offer more placebo than cure. They tend to empower unelected bureaucrats and legislative staff. Novices in legislative leadership posts often lack the wisdom and finesse to build bridges over political divides. In California and other states that impose such limits, voter remorse is not uncommon. Thus, many of us have resisted artificial curtailments even as we grow increasingly disappointed with major players who invest the assets of their longevity in prolonging it.

Instead, we pressed for transcendent reform that would overhaul the system for determining the districts from which state legislators are elected - a system that decade after decade has permitted Democratic or Republican chieftains to craft maps that value partisan advantage and incumbent protection far more than the public interest.

The League of Women Voters and other good-government groups developed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have significantly enhanced the chances for more competitive legislative contests and greater accountability. But they failed to muster support from the commanding Democratic majorities in the legislature and fell far short of gathering the extraordinary number of citizen signatures needed to put the measure on the November ballot without General Assembly approval. Meanwhile, Democrats touted a plan - rejected by Republican lawmakers and, therefore, derailed - that winked at reform and actually boosted the odds they would retain their majorities for yet another decade.

So, in the 2011 redistricting required after this census, we can anticipate the crass partisanship we saw in 1981, 1991 and 2001. It should propel the League, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, Protestants for the Common Good, the Better Government Association and their colleagues to hound the General Assembly during the next decade into changing the way lawmakers are elected and how they operate once in office.

To a great extent, their valiant effort lagged because they tackled a complex, subtle issue not easily packaged in a call to arms against resistant insiders. They now have time to educate Illinoisans about this vital matter.

Similarly, those who see our state drifting toward mediocrity and even insolvency because of horrible fiscal decisions by re-election-riveted legislators must enlighten a citizenry that understands neither the scope nor the scale of the problem - a citizenry, according to several polls, that believes we can cut our way out of a gargantuan deficit and still spare education, law enforcement, services for the truly needy and other popular spending areas that consume 90 percent of the state's general fund.

Conversely, the superficial simplicity of imposing term limits can ignite grassroots fires on the Illinois prairie. Absent real reform, it could create the heat that would force even a majority of legislators to embrace it out of fear they would be ousted even sooner if they balked.

We should not come to that. But if we do, we know who brought us there.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.