Bob Gray, president of the Citizens Club, steps to the podium in a third-floor room of the Hoogland Center for the Arts.
In 1970, he reminds the members, legislators drafted a new state constitution. They included a provision that every 20 years (counting from when the idea took hold in 1968) voters could call for a constitutional convention to make further changes.
"Most of us in this room were around in 1970, we remember well that event," Gray says, drawing several laughs.
On Nov. 4, Illinois residents will again decide whether to call a constitutional convention. To help them weigh the pros and cons, the Citizens Club has invited Ward 5 Ald. Sam Cahnman, who supports a constitutional convention, and Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution member Rob Karr of Springfield, who opposes a convention, to a debate. It is moderated by former state legislator Jim Nowlan from Toulon.
Cahnman kicks things off, arguing first that a
constitutional convention would be a "shot in the arm to our local
If voters decide to examine Illinois' government and laws, they would elect special delegates, who would then temporarily relocate to Springfield to review the current constitution and consider any possible changes. Since there is no limit on how long a constitutional convention can meet, Cahnman says, the open-ended spending on local hotels and restaurants would be an economic benefit.
Cahnman also argues that it's time. In the 1988 election, 75 percent of the population rejected the option for a constitutional convention. Now as government leaders continue to clash, he says, the state has even more incentive, and an avenue, for change.
"We're lucky that our state constitution has thrust before us this chance," Cahnman says. "We can bypass gridlock at the State Capitol. New faces would be elected.
"Twenty years ago, voters said it was too soon,
they needed more time," he continues. "If we wait now,
it'll be 60 years since we've taken a comprehensive
Karr comes up next and points to a clear sign that the public opposes a constitutional convention. The alliance is comprised of organizations such as the Illinois Farm Bureau, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association, that usually have dissimilar interests. But on this issue, they agree.
"Members are frustrated that things happen, or
don't happen, at the Capitol and that the governor seems locked in
personality battles," Karr says. "But none of those issues
constitute a constitutional problem."
The answer, he continues, is to replace elected officials who aren't doing their jobs. Competent representatives will change the constitution via amendments and public approval — a process that works, Karr says. Since 1970, voters have approved 10 of 18 proposed amendments to the constitution.
If voters were to approve a constitutional convention, Karr adds, they would be dissatisfied with the result. More than likely, he says, the special delegates would provide a list of changes that they'd have to vote for in take-it-or-leave-it fashion.
The debate closes with a question-and-answer session, in which several other issues surface.
Cahnman argues that since special delegates are elected solely for the constitutional convention, they won't be influenced by interest groups or 20- or 30-year partisan relationships. On the other hand, Karr says, current legislators can also be elected as special delegates, and since they don't face re-election after the constitutional convention, they won't be held accountable for their actions.
A final issue is cost. Opponents of the constitutional convention have estimated the price of electing delegates and paying their salaries and other expenses to be $78 million, Cahnman says, but other researchers peg the actual cost at around $12 to $14 million. At any rate, Karr argues, the amendment process is the less expensive option .
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