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A mistake: turning governors into superlegislators


The late Bob Elson, for many years the voice of the Chicago White Sox, always took an unruffled approach to the frustrations of the diamond. "Errors, like runs and hits, are part of the game," the Commander would calmly observe each time a Sox miscue proved costly. Though small consolation to someone who lived and died with the Go-Go Sox of the 50s, especially when the beneficiary of the boot was the hated Yankees, Elson's axiom held sage advice for the game of life. Nobody's perfect, it told us; mistakes do happen. And in the governmental arena, delegates to the 1970 Constitutional Convention pulled a dilly when they gave the governor the amendatory veto power.

The problems inherent with the well-intentioned but misguided innovation once again are in evidence as the General Assembly prepares for its fall veto session. For the first time in the 17 years that governors have had the chance to play super-legislator, a formal procedure has been put in place to review the revisory handiwork, which this year includes 19 House bills and 17 Senate measures.

Following the recommendations of a bipartisan study panel, the House Rules Committee is to examine every amendatory veto before the body to determine whether the governor's suggestions are within what is deemed to be the proper scope of his power, or whether the proposed changes exceed constitutional limits.

To meet the House test, an amendatory veto "shall be limited to addressing the governor's objections to portions of a bill the general merit of which he recognizes and shall not alter the fundamental purpose or legislative scheme set forth in the bill as enacted."

The review plan is the latest effort by House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago) to come to grips with what he and many other legislators see as an improper shift of lawmaking power to the governor from the legislature. Moreover, critics contend, the governor's bill-writing, almost always done behind closed doors, makes a mockery of the Constitution's provisions for open and deliberative law making, with opportunities for public participation. Last year, Madigan ruled out of order one amendatory veto because the governor tried to add new provisions never considered by the legislature.

But the speaker's resolve could founder on what may be this year's most flagrant violation of the new guidelines, Gov. James R. Thompson's rewrite of a Chicago school reform package, one of the spring session's thorniest political issues. In an 18-page veto message, Thompson said the "modifications" he was suggesting "would address some of the flaws, but not all," in the 111-page bill. While some of the governor's proposed changes amount to little more than polishing the finished product, a couple of his recommendations flat out contradict the clear language of the measure, approved by majorities in both the Senate and the House.

In one instance, Thompson calls for the governor and Chicago's mayor each to name three members and to jointly appoint the head of an oversight authority that would be created to monitor school reform. As passed, the plan had the mayor pick four of the watchdog panel's seven members, the governor pick three, and the members elect their own chairman.

The second major change involves so-called "supernumerary" teachers, those whose posts are eliminated because of declining enrollment or changing subject requirements. Thompson proposed deleting a guarantee that supernumeraries could keep the seniority rights they now have under their union contract, which give them first claim on other vacant spots.

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Whether these particular changes are worthwhile is debatable, of course, but it's hard to argue that in proposing them Thompson did not "alter the fundamental purpose or legislative scheme set forth in the bill as enacted," especially since both notions were considered, and rejected, by legislators.

Because the legislation is a Senate bill, senators get first crack at the amendatory veto. Thompson has the 28 Republicans in line, but will need at least two Democrats to garner the 30 votes needed to acceptance.

Should the measure clear the Senate and reach the House, Madigan isn't likely to open himself to charges of killing Chicago school reform by ruling the veto out of order on what many would see as narrow, technical grounds. Indeed, that assessment of Madigan's likely course of action probably helped embolden Thompson to try to achieve with his veto pen what Republicans couldn't get done in the legislative chambers.

Thompson's proposal could fall on its merits, of course; black legislators are critical of what they see as a power grab for the oversight authority, and lawmakers sympathetic to labor argue that seniority rights won under a union contract should not be lost by statutory fiat.

But the failure of one bill hardly will cure this governor's, or any governor's, taste for playing superlegislator, as long as the power is there. It's like giving a toddler a crayon, putting the kid in front of a newly painted wall, and expecting nothing to happen. They just can't resist.

Nor are the courts any help: All the Supreme Court has said with certainty in the four cases dealing with the amendatory veto is that a governor can't substitute an entirely new bill. A governor also is probably limited in how far he can rewrite the original measure, the justices have indicated, but so far they haven't seen a case that's gone beyond those bounds.

In fairness, of course, the courts should not be expected to referee what is essentially a turf battle between the other two branches of government. Instead, a cleaner solution is simply to eliminate the amendatory veto, a step voters may now be more willing to take than 14 years ago, when such an amendment narrowly lost. After all, Ford stopped making Edsels and Coca-Cola brought back "Classic" Coke — shouldn't Illinoisans be as willing to admit a mistake?□

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.

November 1988 | Illinois Issues | 9

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