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Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Is it time for Illinois to enact term limits for lawmakers?

“Have you thought through the long term pros and cons of governmental term limits? Would appreciate your thoughts.”

It’s been a while since I considered the topic, but reader Steve K., of Sycamore, got my wheels turning with that short email. The topic is natural every election cycle, but especially so in Illinois as we ponder the future of House Speaker Michael Madigan, who joined the General Assembly in 1971 and has had his leadership post all but two years since 1983.

There are term limits already, of course, as each elected office (and many appointed posts) have automatic expirations. But the question clearly considers the vast majority of elected jobs where there’s no maximum number of times one person can run for office. 

Illinois’ constitution gives Madigan outsized power over the makeup of his district, not to mention he controls the state party (and its campaign resources) and a bag of tricks to stymie challengers. Above board or not, Madigan has clearly gamed the system to his inarguable advantage. Would term limits help?

It’s quite obvious Madigan has mastered being re-elected to his House seat every two years, and although he has one announced Democratic opponent for the speakership in January, consider how much political pressure was needed to build up over decades in order to bring us even to this uncertain point.

However, there’s also the possibility Madigan could’ve exerted significant control over the Legislature through his party chairmanship, a job he’s had since 1998. If he’d been limited to 10 years in the House or three or four stints as speaker before then, perhaps the power consolidation could’ve been curbed.

Term limits do have upsides: even with decent salaries for lawmakers, expiration dates make elected office a far less viable full-time career. More turnover would seemingly reduce the influence of lobbyists and campaign donors. Possibly the biggest benefit is forcing more officials to focus on pursuing goals versus currying favor and avoiding controversial decisions.

But limits aren’t panaceas. In Illinois, it can be nearly impossible to run a viable campaign without full support of a major party’s apparatus — even following uncontested primaries. If party bosses see a district as noncompetitive, or a candidate as unelectable, there’s no money. The establishment will always pick favorites, even if forced to choose a new one every six years.

More turnover amongst elected officials has a way of entrenching power among career bureaucrats — or chasing off good civil servants who just want to keep the government rolling without wild variance amongst bosses. Term limits don’t increase voter participation or government transparency or diversify candidate pools.

Illinois needs change and term limits may help, but they’d only be part of any lasting solution.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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