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Commentary: How much reform can Springfield take?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 26, 2009 - Federal Judge James Zagel denied our impeached governor a shot at reality television in Costa Rica, but those who booted him will have the opportunity to test their own survival instincts in Springfield.

Can lawmakers satisfy the thirst of a reinvigorated anti-corruption movement without diluting the nectar of their incumbency? The answer may determine how much of their reform rhetoric is real and how much is, well, show business.

Last year, the General Assembly overcame Rod Blagojevich's obstructionism to cap how much state contractors can contribute to statewide officials and candidates. This year, legislators evicted the rotten chief executive with dispatch, dignity and due process. They then zipped through a measure targeting machinations in the awarding of pension investment business.

They likely will impose general limits on campaign contributions - dikes that advocates hope will block the rising tide of big money even though creative politicians and interest groups consistently find legal ways to breach them. We also can expect solid majorities for measures to tighten and strengthen whistle-blower protections and to bring more transparency to governmental and campaign activity.

But will we see those majorities for moving the primary election to a later date less friendly to incumbents and less daunting to challengers? Or for changing a legislative redistricting process that, as many have observed, substantially restricts competition by allowing lawmakers to choose their constituents instead of vice versa? Those would represent seminal reforms, which is why many lawmakers fear and fight them.

Back in 1998, another year when reform was in vogue, legislators begrudgingly backed a package to eliminate personal use of campaign funds and dramatically strengthen laws that help us know how politicians raise and spend money. But our representatives adamantly opposed moving the primary from March to June or even later. "If anyone wants to run against me, let 'em walk in the snow, the ice and the cold," snorted one.

Nine years later, they agreed to move the primary - to February. It made sense for presidential election years, especially one in which Barack Obama was stumping; after all, voters in other states for decades had chosen nominees before Illinoisans voted. But our lawmakers made sure the change applied to non-presidential years as well.

So, candidates for state offices are scheduled to begin circulating petitions this August and file by Nov. 2, a full year before the 2010 general election. Those brazen enough to confront an incumbent must do their door-to-door salesmanship on treacherous sidewalks in the numbing cold of December and January.

We need an injection of anti-freeze; the primary should be moved to at least April, abbreviating the advantage of incumbency as well as the expensive, exhausting general-election campaign. But don't count on legislators to budge without mega constituent pressure.

Ditto for reforming a system that has allowed one party or the other - whichever wins a bizarre lottery - to draw districts designed to elect the most legislators of their ilk; even if it divides communities and neighborhoods and gives voters no real choice, the public be damned.

There is always a chance lawmakers will reform on their own, particularly if they anticipate that Gov. Pat Quinn and other populists will arouse the masses and force even more radical change that could produce unintended consequences.

For example, Quinn has backed term limits, which could empower unelected legislative staff members and agency bureaucrats dealing with elected officials who lack institutional knowledge. He supports recall, which would make public officials more inclined to pander and less likely to take actions that could galvanize potent interest groups.

Legislators should ponder those foreseeable realities as they seek to survive.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist. 

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