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Is a new constitutional convention pending?

The 2008 general election could prove to be a historic turning point, both for a nation selecting a new president and for citizens of Illinois weighing in on the fate of the state's constitution. Next November marks the first time in 20 years that Illinois voters will be presented with a referendum to test their continued faith in the state's 37-year-old constitution.

Many issues likely to swirl around the appeal of a constitutional convention (or con-con) have been central to some of Illinois' most heated political debates of the last 40 years. The last time Illinois voters considered whether the state needed to take a fresh look at its constitution was in 1988. The con-con proposition was soundly rejected that year by a three-to-one margin.

The 1970 Illinois Constitution requires the citizens of Illinois be given the opportunity to vote on whether the state should convene a constitutional convention every 20 years. While a convention does not automatically imply a complete rewrite of the state's constitution, it does open the door to revision.

If a majority of voters approve a constitutional convention in the November 2008 general election, Illinois would begin a lengthy dialogue on ways the state's constitution may be amended. Any amendments or revisions proposed by a convention would be presented to voters in a special ballot, presumably in 2010.

When Illinois last considered a constitutional convention, the Illinois Chamber opposed the idea, believing the existing constitution provided a sound legal base. The business community stood up to an early groundswell of support for a constitutional convention to argue that such hot issues as tax reform and education funding did not warrant a constitutional rewrite, but were best left to the legislative and executive branches to resolve.

While many of the issues have not changed since 1988, today's political turbulence creates an entirely different dynamic for the November 2008 election. The past year has seen a power struggle between the legislative and executive branches of epic proportions, resulting in the longest legislative session in Illinois' modern history. The governor has pushed his constitutional authority to the limits and has even sued the House Speaker for what he claims to be constitutional breaches of authority.

The harsh political rhetoric and what many perceive to be a totally dysfunctional government in recent years may have fueled enough frustration to create a real possibility of voters supporting a constitutional convention.

Some topics and questions of particular relevance to employers are:

  • Unlike California, where business interests are confronting perennial, multi-million dollar referendum campaigns, the Illinois Constitution does not provide for law-making by initiative.
  • The Illinois Constitution does not allow term limits or recall for elected officials.
  • The Illinois Constitution protects corporate taxpayers from unilateral and indiscriminate income tax rate increases because the corporate rate can not be increased without raising the individual rate.
  • The flat rate rather than a progressive income tax structure was established by the 1970 constitution.
  • The constitution grants Home Rule powers to cities and counties. Classified property assessments that create higher tax burdens for commercial and industrial landowners in Cook County exist because of constitutional authority.
  • A new constitutional convention would provide an opportunity to revisit liability and tort law that is perceived to favor plaintiffs.
  • Should judges be appointed instead of elected?
  • When facing an ever-rising public employee pension debt liability exceeding $40 billion, should pension benefits be guaranteed by the constitution?
  • Would a con-con result in tough campaign finance and government ethics requirements or even public funding for certain offices?
  • Would a con-con result in stricter limitations on state budgeting, spending and bonding indebtedness?
  • Would a new convention result in a better method to redistrict the legislature?
  • Would a new convention finally resolve and firmly establish the state's responsibility for funding public education, cap the property tax or force consolidation of school districts?

The focus here is to identify a few of the controversial issues that may be of particular concern to employers and business owners. A new convention would undoubtedly entertain dozens of additional topics such as state government structure and responsibilities such as combining the offices of Comptroller and Treasurer or providing public funded universal healthcare for all residents. There will also be numerous social and moral agendas that various interest groups would like to incorporate into the state's constitution.

Like many organizations, the Illinois Chamber has not formally weighed in yet on the 2008 con-con debate, but the issue is on our agenda, and we're polling members for input. A more in-depth overview of the process by which a con-con is convened, as well as a review of issues of consequence to business, is available on the Illinois Chamber Web site (ilchamber.org) under government affairs.

- Doug Whitley is president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at (312) 983-7100 or dwhitley@ilchamber.org.

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