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Kadner: An amendment on your ballot

Illinois State Capitol

Illinois State Capitol

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:23AM



There’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing elected officials admit they can’t be trusted.

And that’s pretty much what Illinois legislators have done by placing a constitutional amendment on the November election ballot.

The amendment, if passed, would require a three-fifths vote of each chamber of the Legislature (House and Senate) to pass an increase in pension benefits for public employees.

The measure not only would effect the Legislature but all other government bodies in Illinois (counties, townships, municipalities, school districts, etc.).

If a municipality wants to increase employee pension benefits as part of a labor agreement, 60 percent of its city council or village board would have to agree.

The Illinois Education Association, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and just about every other union that represents government workers are telling members to vote “No” on the amendment.

I’m not going to take sides on the labor issue here.

What bothers me is that the amendment was written by state lawmakers, who have voted to increase pension benefits for public employees in the past via a majority vote and apparently feel they might do so again in the future.

So they’re saying, “Don’t trust us. Stop us!”

My description of the amendment at the start of this column is a shorthand description of the version you will see on your ballot.

And the language on the ballot (which is confusing and complicated) actually is a shortened version of the legislation creating the amendment.

This whole process feels wrong to me.

When voters decide to amend a constitution they ought to at least see what they’re actually voting on.

This seems more like signing the last page of a legal contract without reading the document because someone is leaning over your shoulder saying, “That’s just standard legal mumbo-jumbo. Just sign the thing.”

Officials in the Illinois secretary of state’s office, which oversees votes on constitutional amendments, tell me this election procedure is just standard practice.

They point to a recent amendment passed that allows for the recall of the governor, which did not include the actual language of the legislation.

And they point out that the final language of the amendment that appears on the ballot is not theirs, but written by the Illinois General Assembly.

Isn’t it remarkable that our nation’s Founding Fathers could put together an entire Bill of Rights, 10 amendments, spelling out the basic freedoms of every citizen in short simple sentences, but state legislators find it impossible to do the same.

Having read the full text of the amendment, I admit printing the entire thing on an election ballot not only would cause substantial delays in voting but likely confuse more people than it would enlighten.

As one critic of the amendment said, “It’s 700 words of verbosity and obfuscation that cloak the true intent and impact of its last sentence, which is to override the current constitutional protections of teachers and retirees.”

I’m not sure I agree 100 percent with the last part of that statement but enthusiastically support the part about “verbosity and obfuscation.”

Despite my reservations, it should be noted that every Illinois household (5.6 million) has received, or should be receiving in the next few days, a blue booklet in the mail with the full text of the amendment, the pros and cons about the topic and the actual wording that will appear on the ballot.

In addition, between now and November, by state law that information will be distributed in newspapers.

I believe a very small percentage of people will read those booklets.

And the language that actually will appear on the ballot still reads like a short novel and is close to incomprehensible.

For people voting via touch screen on Election Day in Cook County, the amendment question will be the first thing that pops up.

The amendment appears at the top of the second page of printed ballots in Cook County.

In order for the amendment to become law, three-fifths of those voting on the question, or a majority of those voting in the election, must vote “Yes.”

Given the current debate in this state over teacher pensions, the anger over rising property taxes and a growing anti-union sentiment in Illinois, my guess is a lot of people are going to vote “Yes” hoping that will stop pension benefits from increasing.

If that’s what people want, if people understand the question being asked, well that’s the way democracy is supposed to work.

My fear is that many people who are confused by the question, or are in a hurry on Election Day, will not vote on the question.

That’s not the way the process is supposed to work.

Voting ought to be simple. People should know exactly what they are voting for or against.

And our elected representatives ought to have the guts to cast votes that are in the best interests of their state and their constituents.

If these folks really can’t be trusted to do the right thing, then just maybe they shouldn’t run for office in the first place.



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