Are Term Limits the Answer to Fighting Corruption in Illinois?

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Illinois’s long-standing reputation for a government entrenched in corruption and cronyism is no secret.

As home to Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, the longest-serving member of any state or federal legislative group in the nation’s history, it’s no wonder why so many feel Illinois’s legislators care more about maintaining power than affecting actual, progressive change. Madigan has served in the state’s capital since 1971 and served as Speaker of the House, save for two years, since 1983.

But what if that were preventable?

For years, research has shown that Illinois residents support a concept that’s been adopted by about one-third of the nation, and one that could give Illinois the refresh it needs to move forward: term limits.

A 2014 poll conducted by Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute showed about 62 percent of respondents “strongly” favored term limits for state legislators for a total of eight years, whether serving in the House, State Senate, or a combination of both.

Similarly, that same poll showed 65 percent of voters “strongly” favored enacting term limits for legislators in leadership roles, such as the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate.

The study further revealed the support for term limits was wholly favored by every subgroup: Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, residents in the suburbs and in Chicago, and members of both the private and public sectors.

Why?

Research from the Institute also shows 76 percent of respondents said they believed Illinois was “on the wrong track.”

Eighty-nine percent of those voters also said they believed corruption in the state was “very/somewhat common,” with 61 percent adding that the corruption impacted the lives of everyday people. Fifty-eight percent said Illinois was “more corrupt than other states,” and a dismal 28 percent placed trust in the state government “to do what’s right.”

Overwhelmingly, the report showed that respondents believed term limits would make elected officials “more responsive” while also ensuring “new people with fresh ideas” would hold office.

The majority of respondents also rejected the notion that term limits don’t give elected officials enough time to develop expertise before leaving office, and also rejected the oft-repeated idea that term limits would inadvertently bolster the power of lobbyists.

Governor Bruce Rauner, along with both Republican and Democratic state legislators, has also backed the idea. However, some state leaders, like Madigan, have long opposed such a measure.

During his first bid for governor, Rauner promised not to serve as governor more than eight years and collected over half a million voter signatures to place a question on term limits on that year’s ballot, but the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against voters’ wishes.

This year, he’s trying again by asking all candidates in the 2018 election to commit to supporting a measure on term limits on this year’s ballot.

Earlier this year, Rep. Thomas Bennett, a Republican from Gibson City, sponsored a bill that would limit the terms of four legislative positions—House Speaker, Senate President, and their minority leader counterparts—to 10 consecutive years in those entities.

In 2017, the Senate approved its own rule change that limits chamber presidents and their minority leader to serving 10 years.

However, if the question of term limits were posed to the general public, the Simon Institute believed the measure would pass “faster than free ice cream.”

The rules would be similar to those enacted in the roughly one-third of states who have imposed term limits, such as Ohio, Michigan, Nebraska, Colorado, and 11 others.

"People should be going into office to serve. When I'm re-elected, that will be my last; I don't care what happens," Rauner told The News-Gazette in February, adding that after 2018, "I am not running for re-election; I am not running for another office. I am a public servant. I'll do two terms; that's it. I believe everybody should be that way."

If you want to stay in public office, there are plenty of other offices to run for.
— Gov. Bruce Rauner
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One of biggest opponents to term limits in Illinois has unsurprisingly been Madigan, who for many has been synonymous with corruption in the state.

From gerrymandering maps that unfairly skew legislative districts, to benefitting from a corrupt property tax system, to hiking income tax when Illinois families need support the most, a common thread throughout Illinois’ history with corruption has been its Speaker of the House and other career politicians who have reaped the political and financial rewards of maintaining power.

Because term limits and corruption are so connected, Rauner is also asking candidates to sign pledges promising they will vote for a Speaker other than Madigan.

Ultimately, research shows the people of Illinois support limiting how long state legislators, particularly those in the highest ranks of power, can serve. However, those who stand to lose the most power have been unwilling to listen and let go.

If we want our state to advance and evolve, it’s imperative we stand up to corruption. We can’t continue to allow the same politicians to represent us indefinitely—the exchange of a diverse range of ideas and viewpoints is crucial to democracy and positive change.

If we continue electing the same politicians who have been repeatedly exposed as serving for their own benefit, we cannot expect change.

With economic and educational potential blossoming in the state, it’s necessary we take precautions to protect Illinois’ much-needed prosperity. Illinois is ready to take the progressive step of enacting term limits to ensure the marketplace of ideas remains fresh and diverse.

“Let’s commit to working together on what unites us,” Rauner told WTTW earlier this year. “Let’s focus on the issues we agree on: reducing taxes, growing jobs, and ending corruption through term limits.”

 
 
 
Jennifer Maine