A few months after I joined the Better Government Association in 2009, one of our most civically and politically engaged board members, Chicago lawyer Scott Hodes, urged me to make the issue of term limits for elected officials in Illinois a cause célèbre for the BGA.
He argued it was an easy reform for the general public to understand, and polling indicated strong support from a vast majority of Illinois voters who were clearly fed up with rampant government corruption and dysfunction.
Hodes also viewed term limits as a perfect soapbox for our then-struggling watchdog organization to stand on for much-needed visibility.
My previous experience as a political reporter at ABC 7 left me skeptical about the efficacy of term limits as a reform elixir, but I agreed to raise the issue at a subsequent BGA board meeting.
That produced a robust discussion about the potential benefits of mandatory political turnover — an influx of fresh faces with new ideas and selfless approaches to public service — and the downside of forcibly replacing effective veteran lawmakers with naïve rookies who’d have to learn the ropes from career lobbyists and other insiders.
Predictably, there was no consensus, so we agreed not to take sides.
But we dedicated a BGA “Idea Forum” to a mini-debate on term limits in 2010, with political scientist and former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson arguing in favor, and the late reform leader, ex-state official Dawn Clark Netsch, opposed.
It was lively, informative and — again, no surprise — ultimately inconclusive.
Since then we’ve heard even louder calls for term limits from a restive electorate, and seen new polls reaffirming its appeal — more than 70 percent give it a thumbs-up — so last fall we started planning a half-day term limits symposium with our colleagues at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU in Carbondale and the Union League Club of Chicago.
We were initially aiming for February here in Chicago, but when Republican Bruce Rauner announced that term limits would be a centerpiece of his campaign for governor, we decided to wait until after the March 18 primary to separate our event from the politics of a race Rauner eventually won.
So now we’re good to go on April 7, and if you’d like to join us — a $15 ticket includes a continental breakfast and lunch — sign up on the BGA website: www.bettergov.org.
We’ve invited Rauner and Gov. Pat Quinn to share their views, or send their running mates. We’ll hear from former Gov. Jim Edgar, and several experts will discuss the specifics: How term limits work in other states; whether they’ve produced better government; and possible scenarios here in Illinois.
We already know there’s a Rauner-backed petition drive under way to place a term limits referendum on the November ballot, and we’ll see where that goes.
Separately, the CHANGE Illinois coalition is pushing an election reform agenda that would, among other things, let voters decide whether to de-politicize the legislative redistricting process.
Those efforts, along with a push to downsize government bureaucracies — that includes the BGA’s “Smart Streamlining” initiative — collectively represent a stellar challenge to the status quo and business as usual in Illinois government.
Reform is definitely on the front burner this year, and its warmth is promising.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.