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Brown: Something up Democrats’ sleeves on redistricting reform

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, argues redistricting legislation while on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Springfield, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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One of the late-Mayor Harold Washington’s favorite sayings came to mind Tuesday as I was watching the Illinois House of Representatives in action.

“Hocus pocus dominocus.”

Washington would apply the phrase to all manner of political machinations, usually to imply skullduggery.

Politics often involves sleight of hand, giving the illusion of doing one thing when quite the opposite is actually what is happening.

But never so much as now that Democratic legislators are locked in a 24/7/365 chess match with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in anticipation of elections that are still six

months off — and another round 30 months off.

OPINION

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Hocus pocus dominocus was on display again Tuesday when the House resoundingly approved a proposed constitutional amendment to take the power of drawing legislative district boundaries out of the hands of legislators.

Despite skepticism from some Republicans who suspected trickery and from African-American Democrats who worry it could be a bad deal for black voters, the proposal from Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) sailed through on a 105-7 vote.

Hooray, right? Isn’t legislative districting reform the one step most everybody, me included, has agreed could shake up Illinois politics for the better?

Yes, and Franks’ measure could very well be the best means to achieve that end, although the evidence is that it’s just being used as another maneuver to fool us.

At the heart of the suspicion is the fact the House-sponsored constitutional amendment was launched in recent weeks just as the nonpartisan Independent Maps campaign was putting the finishing touches on its petition drive to put its own remap reform plan on the ballot.

Democratic lawyers went to court to block a similar effort two years ago and are expected to challenge this proposal as well.

To cover themselves politically, though, Democrats decided to come up with a redistricting plan of their own.

Along came Franks’ proposal, as well as a competing plan from Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) that won approval in the Senate.

The House and the Senate now have until the end of this week to approve the other chamber’s approach if either amendment is to go before Illinois voters in a referendum this fall.

Except that does not appear to be the plan. Instead, legislators in both chambers are preparing to ignore the other’s legislation.

This way they can all say they voted for legislative districting reform — without actually accomplishing anything.

Capitol Fax’s Rich Miller has aptly labeled this maneuver the “criss-cross,” a time-honored legislative method of deflecting blame and responsibility.

It’s a terribly cynical way of doing business, even accounting for honest differences of opinion on the best approach.

As I said months ago, if Democrats didn’t like the Independent Maps approach, then they needed to come up with their own plan to put before the voters this fall.

This is an issue that shouldn’t have to wait another cycle for Democratic leaders to recognize the need for reform. If they pay a political price as a result, so be it.

For now, there’s still the possibility the Independent Maps effort will survive the legal challenge. Its backers say they are confident, but citizen-initiated constitutional change is difficult under Illinois law.

Ironically, there was general agreement among House Republicans who have worked on redistricting reform that Franks’ constitutional amendment is superior to the Independent Maps proposal.

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, always at the forefront of redistricting law, also endorsed Franks’ proposal as superior to the Independent Maps plan.

I didn’t think it would be a bad idea to put both amendments before the voters, a bit confusing perhaps but there’s enough time to sort it out between now and November.

It definitely would have been better than leaving Illinois voters with no redistricting reform—again.

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