Of course, Illinoisans are stuck with politicians deciding how some of their money is spent. Voters then hold those politicians accountable for their actions.
But what happens when they can’t?
Welcome to the lame-duck session in Illinois’ General Assembly. In this legislative purgatory, lawmakers already ousted by voters Nov. 8 can act with reckless abandon before leaving the Statehouse. To make matters worse, after Jan. 1, it only takes a simple majority vote to pass a bill.
One Illinois lawmaker on his way out of Springfield, Democrat Jack Franks, of Marengo, is trying to change that. He’s introduced a constitutional amendment to protect taxpayers from unaccountable politicians during this period.
If successful, Franks’ measure would require a three-fifths supermajority vote to hike taxes during a lame-duck session. That’s 71 votes in the House and 36 in the Senate, instead of the simple majorities of 60 and 30.
That’s music to the ears of Illinoisans who already pay the highest property taxes in the county. And it sure would have come in handy five years ago.
In 2011, Illinoisans were left helpless as defeated politicians raided family budgets for personal gain.
Twenty-four hours before the last day of legislative session in 2011, House Democrats didn’t have the votes they needed for an income-tax hike. So the horse trading began.
Then-Gov. Pat Quinn could trade influence and employment for votes. And House Speaker Mike Madigan had the legislative map, which he was redrawing in the wake of the 2010 Census, among other sweeteners.
Ultimately, the Illinois House voted 60-57 to raise taxes on families and businesses. A dozen lame-duck Democrats voted “yes.” Half of those lawmakers subsequently got state jobs.
The income-tax hike took an additional $1,500 out of the average Illinois family’s budget — enough for a brand new water heater in the cold season ahead.
Franks’ proposed reform would have left Democrats 11 votes short had it been in place.
Surprisingly, political sausage making wasn’t the worst thing about those tax hikes. Voters have come to expect such maneuvers from Illinois state government. Even more concerning was a broken decision-making process laid bare.
Regardless of the vote count, how could politicians pass the largest tax hike in modern state history in a matter of hours?
No substantive debate. No quiet deliberation. No town hall meeting. The bill was introduced, passed and signed by the governor on Jan. 12, 2011.
That problem persists.
On May 25, 2016, House Democrats introduced and passed a 500-page budget in an evening. It was $7 billion out of balance.
This sort of Third World democracy is the root problem when it comes to decisions in the General Assembly. Reforms such as Franks’, while certainly welcome, are simply addressing symptoms. The same goes for House Resolution 1494, which was proposed by Republican state Rep. David McSweeney and passed the House overwhelmingly Nov. 30. It’s nonbinding, but puts lawmakers on the record as opposing a lame-duck tax increase.
A more dramatic reform would go after “shell bills,” a favorite of Madigan and a perversion of the democratic process. Shell bills are pieces of legislation that make meaningless changes — adding and subtracting the word “and,” for example — until they don’t.
After flowing through the appropriate channels, lawmakers can add lengthy amendments to these bills at the last minute, and vote immediately after. No need to deal with those pesky committee hearings or lengthy public scrutiny.
The 2011 tax hikes came out of a shell bill. So did the disastrous state budget passed earlier this year, which Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed. Many other important pieces of legislation originated this way.
To be sure, a supermajority requirement for lame-duck tax hikes would be a major victory for Illinois taxpayers.
An even bigger win? Ending 11th-hour decision-making in the first place.