Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Support for con-con 2008 begins to grow with school board members

Illinois voters will decide November, 2008, whether to convene a constitutional convention to consider improving the Illinois Constitution. This question appears on the state ballot every 20 years.

The first organization to endorse a constitutional convention is the Illinois Association of School Boards, according to this article in the Daily Southtown, reprinted on the Students First Illinois site here.

School board members understand that Illinois dramatically underinvests in children from poor areas, because schools rely on a local tax, not a state tax. That means poor areas have poor schools while wealthy areas have wealthy schools. Our 3% income tax, the lowest among the 41 states with an income tax, is the main reason why the state doesn't generate enough money to buy better teachers or build adequate facilities.

As the Southtown article puts it:

The current language on education funding was a result of the 1970 constitutional convention.

Delegates met in Springfield to find a way to get the state to pick up more of the schools' tab.

People were concerned that the state was providing just 31 percent of the money for schools, compared with 64.5 percent from local property taxes.

Districts with corporate headquarters and expensive homes were funding winners. Rural districts and industry-poor suburbs were losers.

Efforts to set a particular percentage for the state to contribute failed, but a line written by delegate Dawn Clark Netsch made it into the document.

The state has the "primary responsibility" for financing the system of public education, it reads.

"It was a club held over the heads of legislators," said Clark Netsch, a former senator and gubernatorial candidate. "The problem is, it hasn't hit hard enough."

I think there is something pathetic about opposition to a constitutional convention -- pathetic in the sense that the opposition to a constitutional convention is really opposition to a public debate about changes to our constitution that must be ratified by the electorate. That's it. It's fear of democracy, ultimately.

We should have a constitutional debate about the state shouldering the primary responsibility for funding schools -- and what efficiency measures the school districts and teachers unions should have to trade as part of better public policy. It's a good debate to have in the General Assembly and a good debate to have at a constitutional convention.

There's actually a yahoogroup for advocates of a constitutional convention here that anyone can join.

I hope Illinois voters (and the powers that be) support a constitutional convention in 2008. There are always improvements that we can make, and a debate on the issues followed by a public vote (and constrained by the protections of the federal Constitution) would be a very healthy thing.

Issues that I'd like addressed would include the constitutional mandate for a flate rate income tax, the odd, mandated 5/8 ratio of individual income tax to corporate income tax and perhaps a strengthened protection of speech rights. And for the tax-cutters, I think we should revisit the issue of whether all public pensions should be constitutionally enshrined where it is unconstitutional to lower any pension payments at all -- even those clear mistakes where some people are getting ridiculously generous pensions that the state, county or city can not afford. Pensions are our biggest fiscal problem, and the constitutional prohibition against fixing any of the worst mistakes in pension increases that the General Assembly has made over the years is a problem. (Yes, I know that pensions are underfunded, but I think it's fair to say that at least sometime over the last ten years the General Assembly has increased some pension payments unreasonably, and it would be best if some of those unreasonable increases could be reversed).


respectful said...

I predict Mike Madigan and the party he leads will be staunchly opposed to Con-Con. The question is whether progressives will buck him the way they're doing on the treasurer nominee. I also believe the GOP establishment will oppose Con-Con. Will there be enough rebels in each party to overcome the Combine's opposition?

respectful said...

Frustration over lack of action on changing education funding provides a potential block of voters for Con-Con. A Con-Con would scare the bejesus out of the powerful interest groups who have their way in the General Assembly.

Extreme Wisdom said...

The beauty of democracy is that the school boards are lobbying for a Convention that may succeed in removing them from existence.

IL has 886 districts, not one of which educates a single child. Parents, Teachers and Schools educate children.

Districts lobby for money to spend on bureaucracy and legislation that creates more bureaucracy.

The irony of all their lobbying cash used to create that which destroys them would be a story worth reporting.

Kevin O'Malley said...

Dan, I think it's great to keep raising attention about a ConCon. It represents a great opportunity for progressives.

But I think there's a nuanced strategic postion that I'd like to suggest as an alternative.

Your blog seems to suggest that a ConCon is a great opportunity to get progressive ideas put in concretely, constitutionally, in place, because these ideas don't get taken care of through the legislative process--which they don't.

But the progressive opportunity of a ConCon (and I know you know this, Dan) is to change the very structure of our governance so that progressive ideas can be implemented through the legislative process. These ideas have popular support, but for some reason cannot make their way through the political combine of Illinois.

You point about pensions is a great case-in-point. These large unfunded burdens are a huge problem, but don't kid yourself that the Constitution is what's at fault. If "fat cats" are handing their fellow "fat cats" sweet pension deals, that's as much a failure of the political process as when they hand their friends big government contracts or jobs or college scholarships or you-name the "favor." Or when they build stadiums and prisons, but don't do anything about education.

The opportunity of a ConCon is to reorder government so there are no "fat cats," or at least minimize them through transparent structures that create an incentive for the politician to broaden his or her appeal to popular movements, organizations and coalitions, not through stifling political machines built on favors, favortism and base loyalties. Your Constitution can say all the great things about education, pensions and health care, but it won't mean anything if the government won't change. The very pension language you want to strip-out was probably put in place to protect working class workers. The fact that it may not be serving that purpose anymore represents exactly the limitation of trying to get things legislated through the constitutional process.

I suggest that a progressive ConCon will speak to these things: cumulative voting, proportional representation, unicameralism, campaign finance, ballot access, county governance reform and regionalism. If we appeal to the voters that they can get a better democracy out of a ConCon, maybe more will jump on board. ?