SPRINGFIELD (AP) – A term-limit amendment that supporters are trying to get on the 2014 ballot would cap legislative careers at 8 years and end what proponents call “career politicians” in Illinois.
To what extent that would mean changes in the General Assembly is the question.
If the amendment were in place now, it would put an end to the careers of all four legislative leaders, each of whom has served far more than 8 years in the General Assembly.
However, it would have less impact on the Legislature as a whole. Nearly 60 percent of the current crop of lawmakers have been in office for fewer than 8 years. Although some of them are closing in on the 8-year cutoff, most are not.
Just last week, Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, and Rep. Tim Schmitz, R-Batavia, announced they would not seek re-election. Jakobsson has been in office nearly 10 years, while Schmitz has been in the House for nearly 14.
They are among at least 11 current legislators, including Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica, who have announced they are retiring or are running for another office and will not return to the General Assembly in 2015.
“I think in general, people think they are in there for life. It’s not true,” said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
Indeed, there are exceptions, notably House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who has been in the House since 1971. He shortly will become the longest-serving House speaker in the country.
And that, said Mooney, is where term limits come into play the most.
“I don’t think it’s going to increase average overall turnover that much,” Mooney said. “It’s going to have a big effect on the old heads.”
Which is part of the point, said Mike Schrimpf, spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.
Rauner has made term limits a plank of his campaign and formed the Committee for Legislative Reform political action committee to get a term-limit amendment on the ballot.
Schrimpf said that despite turnover in the General Assembly, “you still have dozens of senators and House members who have been there longer than 8 years.”
“Term limits is about shaking up the culture of being a career politician,” he said. “All you need to do is look at Mike Madigan and (Senate President) John Cullerton as examples of folks who get entrenched in Springfield and stay there for decades and control what is a broken system.”
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, doesn’t discount the symbolism of Madigan’s long tenure as speaker.
“The public just assumes that since the speaker has been around for such a long time that it’s the same old people and we have career politicians,” Redfield said. “I think the public would be surprised at how much turnover there is.”
There has been turnover. There are 177 seats in the Legislature. Yet the General Assembly’s website lists 200 lawmakers who served for all or some of the 97th General Assembly, which ran from 2011-2012. (That doesn’t include two members who served in both chambers during that time). The difference is the result of lawmakers leaving before their terms expired and being replaced by newcomers.
Redfield said it isn’t uncommon for there to be a large turnover in the Legislature when it comes time to draw new legislative maps.
New district boundaries were in place for the first time in the 2012 election. In some cases, incumbents are put together in the same district, forcing them to either run against each other or forcing one of them to move into a new district. Districts can be drawn to give one party a distinct advantage.
In 2012, the districts were often drawn by Democrats to the disadvantage of Republicans. But in the past two years, a number of Democrats also have departed voluntarily, some with many years of experience.
“There’s turnover related to a bunch of different factors,” Redfield said. “One of them is that it’s probably less fun to be a member of the General Assembly than it was a decade ago. The combination of year after year of all of the budget problems, the scandal problems. It’s a lot more fun to be a member of the Legislature when revenues are increasing and you get to fund things. This is a very frustrating time to be a member of the Legislature.”
Although there has been turnover in the Legislature, Mooney said it is unlikely to affect how voters view term limits. There are 15 states that have term limits, he said, almost all of them states where people can get issues placed directly on the ballot.
A 2012 poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found nearly 79 percent of respondents favored term limits.
“People just like term limits,” Mooney said. “At a gut level, we don’t like the Legislature. It’s messy and confusing. Everything that people don’t like about the government they can easily blame the Legislature, because no one stands up for the Legislature. I’ve never seen a major governmental reform as popular with the public as term limits.”