By CHARLES N. WHEELER III
Birthdays and anniversaries are ideal occasions for folks to look back on the road they've traveled and reflect on how well they've weathered life's journey. In similar fashion, it's fitting to mark a significant milestone for the body politic: Twenty years ago this month, Illinois government entered the 20th century when a new state Constitution took effect on July 1, 1971.
In the contemplative spirit customary for such occasions, a few observations might be in order from someone who was there as the new charter was being written and who has watched its influence on state government and politics ever since.
Drafted by the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) and adopted by the voters in December 1970, the new document replaced a century-old charter widely regarded as an impediment to a modern, efficient state government. In large measure, the transition to the jet age from horse-and-buggy days was initiated by former Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie, who boldly proposed a state income tax and annual budgeting within three months of his inauguration. Although radical departures from the way Illinois had been doing business for the previous century and a half, both ideas were embodied in the 1970 charter, along with other dramatic advances.
Certainly one of the most significant contributions of the 1970 Constitution has been its delegation of home-rule powers to the state's larger towns and Cook County. Under its Local Government Article, cities of more than 25,000 population and counties that elect a chief executive officer enjoy broad powers to regulate, to tax and to deal with local matters. That's a far cry from previous decades when Chicago and other cities were forced to seek legislative approval for even the most mundane of municipal activities.
At the time of Con-Con, home-rule detractors fretted that local mayors and village boards could not be trusted with such unfettered powers. After two decades, though, a stronger argument could be made that many a town's home-rule powers have proved a blessing for its residents by enabling local officials to fund essential services from new revenue sources, rather than continuing to raise property taxes. More importantly, most city dwellers seem content with the new arrangement — only five home-rule communities have voted to abandon home-rule status in the last 20 years, while more than 30 smaller ones have voted themselves in.
In like manner, the 1970 Revenue Article threw off the uniformity straight jacket under which achieving tax progressivity was long thought impossible. Granted, the new charter expressly prohibits a graduated income tax rate and requires that the corporate rate never exceed the individual rate by greater than an 8-to-5 ratio. But it also allows "reasonable" exemptions, deductions, credits, refunds and allowances. While it seems to have taken those championing tax progressivity almost 20 years to figure it out, those tax breaks can be used to shift some of the burden from the poor to those in more comfortable circumstances.
The drafters of the 1970 Constitution also sought to avoid the sort of narrow restrictions found in the 1870 document that ultimately proved futile. In at least two areas, the efforts have yielded mixed results: state borrowing and local government proliferation.
• Eliminating a woefully outdated limit on nonreferendum debt was supposed to allow the state to sell general obligation bonds directly, rather than at a premium rate through quasi-public middlemen like the Illinois Building Authority. Some might argue the plan worked too well: Since 1971, state debt has soared by more than $7.6 billion.
• Allowing cities and counties to impose additional taxes for special services in designated areas created within their boundaries was envisioned as a way to halt the spread of new taxing districts. More than 200 special service areas have been created, but the number of limited purpose units also has grown.
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Arguably Con-Con's worst legacy has been the amendatory veto. Well-intentioned delegates naively hoped the governor would use the new power to correct technical errors in bills; in the real world, of course, Ogilvie and every governor since have seen themselves as authors, rather than mere proofreaders. In retrospect, delegates also probably should have spelled out more explicitly what are public funds for the benefit of the Illinois Supreme Court, which seems so far to have missed the point of Article VIII, Section 3.
Among the biggest disappointments under the new Constitution has been the state's failure to live up to the ambitious goal of bearing primary responsibility for education funding. In 1973, the Illinois Supreme Court held that the charter expresses a commitment but does not require the state to provide any particular percentage of school funding. In the ensuing years, state funds for elementary and secondary education have more than tripled, but the state's share of total school funding has fallen from a high of 48 percent in the 1975-76 school year to an estimated 38 percent this year as local tax receipts soared, fueled by skyrocketing suburban property values.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can also pick what might be termed the biggest "sleeper" of the 1970 document: its Bill of Rights provision banning discrimination based on sex. The so-called "Little ERA" drew scant attention at Con-Con, two years before Congress sent to the states a proposed federal Equal Rights Amendment that touched off one of the most bitterly divisive struggles in Illinois history.
On the other hand, delegates were so concerned about a provision to lower the voting age to 18 that the proposal was one of four submitted to voters apart from the main document. Illinoisans opted to keep a 21-year-old voting age, but by the time the new state charter took effect, the issue was moot: A federal constitutional amendment was in place guaranteeing 18-year-olds the right to vote.
On balance, the 2.7 million Illinoisans who voted against a convention call in 1988 were right — it's been a good 20 years for the 1970 Constitution.
Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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