In August of 2016, more than 563,000 Illinois voters signed a petition for a ballot initiative that many hoped would end partisan gerrymandering in the Land of Lincoln. The Illinois State Supreme Court quickly dashed those hopes when it struck down the ballot initiative as unconstitutional. The ruling affirms the Illinois constitution’s, exceptionally limited scope of potential ballot initiatives. This ruling has implications far beyond gerrymandering: this decision limits the potential for future ballot initiatives in Illinois, and thus the resolution of many of the state’s thorniest issues..
Dennis FitzSimons, chairman of Independent Maps, spearheaded the partisan gerrymandering reform ballot initiative. Independent Maps’ plan would have established an independent commission to handle redistricting, limiting the state legislature’s role to some input in the appointment of commissioners. Despite Independent Maps obtaining over 563,000 voter signatures, the ballot initiative was challenged in Hooker v. Ill. State Bd. of Elections. On a 4-3 vote, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down Independent Maps’ ballot initiative as unconstitutional. The court relied on relied on Article XIV, §3 of the Illinois constitution which limits the scope of ballot initiatives “to structural and procedural subjects contained in Article IV, the legislative article.” The court reasoned that Independent Maps’ plan violated Article XIV, §3 of the Illinois constitution because the plan included new responsibilities for the auditor general, that is not a “subject” contained within Article IV of Illinois’ constitution. Although the Court claimed that this decision did not bar any redistricting reform via ballot initiative, it did acknowledge that the limitation set out in Article XIV §3 is unique to Illinois.
Article XIV §3 effectively bars any ballot initiative that touches on any substantive issue. In The Chicago Bar Ass’n v. State Bd. of Elections, the Court compared procedural and structural issues to substantive issues. At issue was a proposed amendment that would have created a special process for bills that aimed to increase tax revenue. The Court struck down the ballot initiative, holding that the amendment included a substantive issue: increasing state revenue and taxes. In striking down Independent Maps’ ballot initiative, the Illinois Supreme Court maintained the The Chicago Bar Ass’n court’s rigid interpretation of Article XIV, §3. Consequently, as currently interpreted, Article XIV §3forecloses a path to urgently needed reforms, making it even harder. to solve the state’s biggest issues. This is particularly clear when examining Illinois’ public pensions.
Illinois is in fiscal crisis. The state has more than $133.5 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, leading to the lowest bond rating of any state, just above junk bond status. Recognizing the crisis, in 2013, former governor Pat Quinn championed pension reform. However, the state Supreme Court struck down the governor’s plan, holding that pursuant to the pension protection clause in art. XIII, § 5of the Illinois constitution, once pension benefits are given, they cannot be diminished or impaired. In light of this, a constitutional amendment to this provision appears to be the only means of staving off fiscal disaster for Illinois. But who will amend it? Illinois case law and Article XIV §3 virtually guarantee a pension reform ballot initiative would be struck down because pension reform is a substantive issue, not relating to the structure and procedure of the legislature as enumerated in Article IV.s
Illinoisans also shouldn’t hold out hope that the state legislature will amend the state’s constitution to allow pension reform. The Illinois speaker of the house, Michael Madigan, known for his legislative line-drawing prowess, has held the speakership for all but one term since 1983. All the while, Illinois’ pension crisis has been brewing. In fact, Michael Madigan opposed the Independent Maps’ ballot initiative. One of his longtime allies was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in Hooker v. Ill. State Bd. of Elections. In the absence of legislative action, Illinois voters need greater power to enact reforms via ballot initiatives. However, in light of Hooker , that power can only be granted by the legislature amending the state constitution. Under Michael Madigan’s leadership, such an amendment appears unlikely. So for now, Illinois voters, and groups like Independent Maps, should save their pens and their ink. More than likely, their signatures will not count on election day, and the state’s myriad of issues will be left unaddressed.