Asking voters’ opinions

Lawmakers use referendums as campaign fodder

 State leaders are asking the public’s advice when it comes to increasing the minimum wage, taxing millionaires and including contraception in health insurance coverage.

Three bills awaiting the governor’s signature would put “advisory referendums” on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. An advisory referendum means the legislature can use the results to judge whether a change is warranted, but the results can also be ignored, as the referendums are “non-binding.”

House Bill 3814 passed the General Assembly May 28. If signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, it will place an advisory referendum on the ballot that asks voters if the minimum wage should be increased from the present $8.25 an hour to $10 an hour. The bill passed by 71-43 in the House and 39-17 in the Senate.

Discussions in the General Assembly have centered around whether increasing the minimum wage will hurt industry or pull people out of poverty. Some leaders have argued that a wage increase will lead to higher food prices, which some argued would lead to fewer meal options for low-income families.

Gov. Pat Quinn has been pushing for a higher minimum wage as he has insisted higher wages will boost economic growth.

Republican governor candidate Bruce Rauner once said he is “adamantly” against a minimum wage increase, which has been used by Democrats and outside groups as campaign material against the candidate.

There have been alternatives offered to simply putting out a non-binding ballot. Senator Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, who is running against Democrat U.S. Senator Dick Durbin in the fall election, suggested a higher minimum wage should be phased in over three years and should only apply to individuals age 26 and older, but he never got a proposal through the General Assembly.

Also this fall, voters will get the chance to weigh in on whether people earning more than $1 million per year should be required to pay an additional 3 percent income tax on income exceeding $1 million. The referendum comes after Speaker Michael Madigan failed to get the votes needed to get his “millionaire tax” proposal considered as a constitutional amendment.

Another advisory referendum that may make the November ballot would ask voters if health insurance plans should be required to cover prescription birth control. The bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly during the spring session and awaits the governor’s signature.

While this fall’s ballot may be loaded with questions the voting public has little control over, the results may give leaders material to reinforce their voting stances during a tough election year. David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said piling questions onto the ballot can be a tactic to get voters to the polls in a non-presidential election year. In 2004, Yepsen said, Republicans in some states were putting bans on gay marriage on the ballot to turn out evangelical voters.

“This is a tactic used by both parties in different states to gin up turnout,” Yepsen said.

“And Democrats – this time, they’re really worried about turning out their base voters. Minority voters, younger voters, turnout amongst those groups just really drop off during a non-presidential year,” he said.

While the ballot questions could lure some voters to the polls, in the end, the legislature could ignore the results. However, Democrats could use the results as campaign material against candidates such as Rauner.

“This is also, I think, an attempt by a Democratic legislature to needle the Republican candidate for governor, who is wealthy and who has kind of fumbled the discussion early on of the minimum wage,” he said.

Yepsen, who directs an institute that regularly publishes scientific public opinion polls, noted that if legislators wanted to know what people think, they could take another route other than an advisory referendum.

“It’s not a matter of not understanding what public opinion is on these questions,” he said. “Welcome to politics.”

Contact Lauren P. Duncan at

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