Some say Quinn's '79 initiative created environment for corruption

  • Gov. Pat Quinn

    Gov. Pat Quinn Associated Press

Published: 5/19/2009 12:10 AM

SPRINGFIELD - The Illinois governor ultimately responsible for many of the state's current ethics woes may not be Rod Blagojevich or even the imprisoned George Ryan. He may be Pat Quinn.

While Blagojevich's rampant political corruption during six years as Illinois' governor led to his arrest, ouster, indictment and now widespread calls for reform, some experts argue the structure of state government that has led to entrenched leadership and a lack of electoral competition has its origins during an earlier burst of state government reform, led by none other than Quinn.

In 1979 and 1980, Quinn was a good-government activist leading the charge for the "Cutback Amendment," which reduced the size of the Illinois House by one-third and ended so-called cumulative voting in Illinois. Quinn and other proponents claimed cutting the size of the legislature would save the state money and lead to more competitive elections.

"The Illinois General Assembly has become one of the most costly, unproductive and unresponsive legislative bodies in the United States," Quinn said in January 1979 after lawmakers voted to boost their own pay 40 percent. Quinn asked Illinoisans angry over the pay raise to send tea bags in protest to then-Gov. James Thompson, a Chicago Republican. Nearly 40,000 tea bags arrived at the mailroom in Springfield.

But Cutback opponents insisted shrinking the House would lead to increased control by legislative leaders, discourage electoral competition and not save much money. Now, the recent report of the Illinois Reform Commission is calling for term limits on legislative leadership and fairer redistricting as a remedy to the very things Quinn said his effort would fix.

"The Cutback contributed to shaping the political dynamic we have now, which is a very leadership-dominated process," said Kent Redfield, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a longtime state government analyst. "It made it easier to consolidate power in the House. It certainly made it easier for (House Speaker Michael) Madigan to dominate the House than prior to the Cutback."

Unlike today's single-member representative districts, from 1870 to 1982, each Illinois House district had three representatives. In House elections, a voter could vote three different ways: three votes for one candidate, one and a half votes each for two candidates or one vote for three candidates. Cumulative voting, as the system was called, worked such that nearly every district had at least one representative from each party. For instance, a House district from Republican stronghold DuPage County tended to elect two Republicans and one Democrat.

At the time, Quinn suggested lawmakers were afraid to run in head-to-head races.

"With a one-on-one contest, we'd elect better people. The office would be more prestigious," Quinn said.

Asked last week if he thought his 1980 plan had backfired politically, Quinn said no. He said he thought it would have even more support today.

The reform commission report claims today's legislative districts are drawn in such a way as to protect incumbent lawmakers and there are very few truly competitive races. As a result, existing parties become entrenched and campaign money is concentrated in the few competitive races.

"The House prior to Cutback was a much more diverse body with a much more wide-open process," Redfield said. "With cumulative voting, there might have been some Green Party members in the legislature right now."

And multi-member districts may not be gone for good. One suburban lawmaker is still trying to roll back the Cutback.

State Sen. Chris Lauzen, an Aurora Republican, has proposed amending the state constitution to restore multi-member districts. Instead of 118 representatives from individual districts, under Lauzen's plan, the House would have 117 members elected from 39 districts, with three representatives in each district. The amendment is awaiting action in the state Senate.