When Mike Madigan first took his seat in the Illinois House of Representatives, the wide-eyed youth of the world were proclaiming the virtues of Coca-Cola.
“I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony,” they sang on an Italian hilltop.
Peace. Unity. Democracy. It was 1971.
More than four decades into Madigan’s tenure, Illinois couldn’t be much further from those ideals.
In fact, Madigan has muffled one of the few common choruses among Illinoisans of all political stripes – support for term limits. For yet another year, Illinoisans will be deprived of a referendum on the ballot to vote on this matter.
Nearly 4 out of 5 Illinois residents support term limits, according to polling from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. It’s no wonder Madigan doesn’t want to give voters the choice to restrict political staying power.
Strong demand for term limits in Illinois should come as no surprise.
Only 25 percent of Illinoisans are confident in their state government, according to poll numbers released Feb. 17 by Gallup. This stands as the lowest rate in the nation by an eight-point margin, and is far lower than that of any other Midwestern state.
The best case for term limits in Illinois might be the fight surrounding, well, term limits. Only the strongest of political machines could so effectively deny Illinoisans their voice on an issue with such widespread support.
In a 2014 fight to put legislative redistricting to a popular vote, that same political machine provided a prime example of why Illinoisans feel a need to end the status quo in the first place.
A citizens group wanted a vote on its plan to take redistricting out of the politicians’ hands and make the process nonpartisan. The group collected nearly double the 300,000 signatures required by law to get the measure on the November 2014 ballot. But a lawsuit filed by a longtime associate of Madigan prevented voters from being heard on the matter.
Instead, the ballot saw three nonbinding survey questions, one of which Madigan later admitted was placed purely to boost Democratic turnout for then-Gov. Pat Quinn.
It’s no wonder so many Illinoisans see state politics as a power trip and not a public service.
Opponents of term limits often argue they restrict the voice of voters. If constituents put a politician in office for decades, doesn’t that mean he or she is doing a good job?
Perhaps, but tenures stretching across generations have led to un-democratic outcomes for voters across the state. Madigan has consolidated his power through decades of fundraising, redistricting and scare tactics to the point where nothing can become Illinois law without his approval.
How’s that for democracy?
With more than 80 years of combined experience between Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, entrenched political figures run the show in Illinois. The same is true in cities across the state – especially the Windy City. Of the top 10 biggest cities in the U.S., Chicago, is the only one without term limits for its mayor or City Council members.
Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, often dubbed “the real mayor of Chicago,” took office in 1969.
As things stand, Illinois taxpayers are on the hook for politicians who use the system to earn a paycheck at all costs. The average lawmaker salary in the General Assembly is more than $80,0000, according to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. And that’s for what is legally considered a part-time job.
And don’t forget about politicians’ pensions. A career state lawmaker who retires at age 66 can expect to receive $2.1 million in lifetime pension benefits, according to Illinois Policy Institute research. With that kind of money on the line, it’s unsurprising that Statehouse stalwarts are fighting to maintain the current system.
Term limits aren’t just a cosmetic change. They aren’t a feel-good Coke commercial. They’re a powerful reform that can make Illinois democracy work again.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.