SPRINGFIELD – It’s been nearly two decades since the issue of term limits for lawmakers captured the biggest headlines in Illinois, helping fuel the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. That same year, a populist state treasurer named Pat Quinn gathered nearly half a million signatures for an “Eight is Enough” campaign to embody term limits in Illinois’ constitution.
The efforts always have failed in Illinois, but the issue now is being resurrected in connection with the accelerating campaign for governor next year.
A political action committee chaired by Winnetka venture capitalist and GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner is scheduled to unveil plans this week for a campaign to ask voters on the November 2014 ballot to impose term limits on politicians.
The idea is always popular with the public, as a possible way to throw out the “bums” in government. But history shows that it will be an uphill battle in Illinois, the biggest hurdle being a 1994 state Supreme Court ruling that stopped the initiative by Quinn, now the Democratic governor Rauner is aiming to unseat.
“How are you going to get around that decision?” asked Charlie Wheeler, who teaches public affairs reporting at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “A precedent is a precedent.”
Yet, successful or not, the initiative could serve as an effective political strategy for Republicans, by rallying voters to the polls. It especially would help Rauner, the only one of four GOP primary candidates never to have held elected office, by connecting his name to a popular issue and allowing his supporters to raise more money.
Since the surge in the 1990s, a total of 21 states have adopted term limits on governors and state officials. But some were thrown out by courts or repealed by state legislatures, so only 15 states currently use them, according to Christopher Mooney, director of the University of Illinois’ institute of government and public affairs.
A national Gallup Poll in January found 75 percent approved the idea of term limits for members of Congress, 82 percent among Republicans. But experts say that term limits don’t necessarily lead to healthier state budgets, lower unemployment or even fewer career politicians, who can skirt limits by seeking other elected offices.
David Yepsen of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Institute said the initiatives function mostly as a place for voters to direct their anger.
“Term limits are sort of a crude tool that voters have,” he said. “They see this as one of the few ways to break up some of the power structure.”
The issue could resonate in today’s Illinois, which faces enormous financial and debt problems under the direction of a state leadership filled with career politicians.
According to an Associated Press review, 67 of 177 members of the General Assembly have served more than 10 years. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, first elected in 1971, has served as speaker for 28 of the last 30 years. Senate President John Cullerton, another Chicago Democrat, also has served in the legislature since the 1970s.
Quinn, who portrays himself as a political outsider, served as treasurer for four years, lieutenant governor for six, and will be in line to serve 10 years as governor if he wins re-election.
He reiterated Sunday his support for term limits but didn’t talk specifics, such as how many terms he’d serve. He said Rauner’s push was late in the game.
“I wish he helped us back 20 years ago,” Quinn told reporters after an unrelated event. “All of a sudden he got the feeling.”
Over the years, lawmakers have filed a number of legislative proposals to limit terms, but the initiatives stall quickly. State Rep. Dwight Kay of downstate Glen Carbon pledged this month in his district newsletter to re-file term limits legislation, but said efforts always are thwarted as “the very people it would impact — the power brokers, made sure it never even was heard in committee.”
The counter-argument is that term limits backfire. Many say they rob the government of seasoned leadership and institutional memory, and shift power into the hands of un-elected bureaucrats and lobbyists.
“The risk is what you throw out is the baby with the bathwater,” said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat who has served since 1979.
To get the term-limits question on the 2014 ballot, proponents would need to gather signatures totaling 8 percent of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, in this case roughly 288,000.
Rauner campaign spokesman Mike Schrimpf would not reveal details of the new campaign or what maximum term it would seek to impose. If elected, Rauner pledges to serve a maximum of two terms in the governor’s mansion, but the state constitution would restrict any term-limit initiatives to legislators.
Currently, there is no limit to how many four-year terms a governor can serve. Former Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican, served 14 years.
The judicial challenge for a ballot initiative is rooted in a 1976 Illinois Supreme Court ruling that said proposed referendums can be placed on the ballot only if they include “structural and procedural” changes to the Legislature. The court referred to that ruling when it threw out Quinn’s initiative in 1994.
Schrimpf said the Rauner campaign is aware of the 1994 ruling and would get around it by proposing other reforms that would change the “structural and procedural” workings of the legislature as well.
Yet, Rauner stands to benefit from the initiative in several ways. Unlike normal political action committees, those pushing a ballot question have no limits on what donors may contribute. So Rauner supporters could channel their money to the second campaign associated with him, giving him even more publicity.
“He’s in a position where he can raise a lot of money and take a vehicle like this and promote his campaign,” said Kent Redfield, a UIS professor emeritus.