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Last push being made for constitutional amendments

Published: Monday, April 28, 2014 4:00 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, April 28, 2014 11:22 p.m. CDT

Illinois lawmakers have put two questions on the November ballot to amend the state Constitution to increase the rights of voters and crime victims.

Two advocacy groups say they have more than enough signatures to put two more proposed amendments on the ballot to decrease the powers of state lawmakers through term limits and redistricting reform.

The shortest proposed amendment is one sentence long. The largest weighs in at 1,500 words, or more than one-third the size of the U.S. Constitution.

A proposed amendment to tax millionaires at a higher rate to help fund public education ended up on the scrap heap because it did not have the votes to pass in the House. Another proposed amendment to replace the state's flat income tax with a "progressive" tax based on income likely faces a similar fate.

A May 4 deadline looms for proposed amendments to the state Constitution. Amendments proposed in the General Assembly require three-fifths majorities of 71 votes in the House and 36 votes in the Senate. Citizen referendums require signatures equal to at least 8 percent of the ballots cast for governor in the last election, or about 300,000. Citizen referendum can only be used to amend the section of the Constitution dealing with the powers and structure of the General Assembly.

The following is a list of proposed amendments that are on the ballot or being proposed:

• VOTING RIGHTS: The proposed amendment would add language that would forbid denying the right to vote or to register to vote based on "race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or income."

The one-sentence amendment would add a new section to Article 3, which covers elections.

Supporters state the amendment is necessary to block future lawmakers from enacting voter-suppression laws, as they allege are being imposed in other states before and in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Critics call the amendment a solution to a nonexistent problem in Illinois and a political ploy to boost Democratic voter turnout in what is expected to be a tight gubernatorial race between Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn and Republican challenger Bruce Rauner.

The bill, House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 52, passed 105-9 in the House and unanimously in the Senate.

• VICTIM RIGHTS: This proposed amendment would augment victims' rights language in the Constitution that voters approved by amendment in 1992.

If voters approve, courts would be required to hear and rule on crime victims' requests for their rights to be enforced. A victim's safety would have to be taken into account in the setting of bail, granting parole and determining conditions of release. The amendment also clarifies that crime victims have the right to be notified of proceedings of a criminal's conviction, sentencing, imprisonment and release. Current constitutional language gives victims the right to access the information, but does not impose a notification requirement on government.

The amendment tweaks Section 8.1 of the Illinois Bill of Rights, which addresses the rights of victims of crime.

Illinois is the only state that does not allow a crime victim to go to a higher court when his or her rights are denied, according to the Illinois Attorney General's Office.

The bill, HJRCA 1, passed unanimously in the Senate and with only two opposing votes in the House.

• INDEPENDENT MAPS: A proposed amendment by an advocacy group would take away state lawmakers' ability to draw their district maps after each decennial U.S. Census.

The proposed 1,500-word amendment being pushed by the group Yes For Independent Maps puts the job of redrawing legislative boundaries in the hands of an 11-member commission appointed by a three-member panel, itself selected from random applications submitted to the state auditor general. The commission's meetings under the amendment are open to the public.

The amendment's rules forbid the drawing of boundaries that split units of local government, ethnic or linguistic groups, or discriminate against political party. Public hearings for the maps must be held in every state judicial district, and a majority vote to approve must include balance between both parties and independent commission members.

Article 4, Section 3 of the Illinois Constitution governs the redistricting process. The amendment applies only to the boundaries of the Illinois House and Senate, which would still have the power to draw the boundaries of the state's Congressional districts.

Yes For Independent Maps plans to deliver more than 500,000 signatures on Thursday to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

• TERM LIMITS: Another initiative being pushed by a Rauner-supported group would impose strict term limits on the General Assembly and make other changes.

The proposal by the group Term Limits and Reform would limit House and Senate members to a total of eight years. It also restructures the General Assembly to consist of 41 Senate districts with three House districts apiece for a total of 123. The amendment imposes an effective date of 2023, which would start the term-limit clock ticking in 2015. It also increases the number of votes needed to override a gubernatorial veto from three-fifths to two-thirds.

If allowed on the ballot, the amendment would change three sections of Article 4.

The amendment does not impose term limits on the governorship and the five other statewide offices because citizen petitions can only offer amendments to the section of the Constitution dealing with the General Assembly. An amendment proposed last week by Republicans would impose the eight-year limit on the executive offices, but the bill is unlikely to advance given the Democratic supermajorities in both the House and Senate.

Term Limits and Reform's website claims it has 450,000 signatures, and is looking for more to ensure the proposed amendment can survive a challenge, The group has not publicly revealed a timetable for submitting its petition.

• PROGRESSIVE TAX: A vote is expected in the Senate this week on an amendment to replace Illinois' flat income tax in Article 9, Section 3 with a progressive one based on income.

The bill, Senate Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 40, is expected to clear the Senate, but faces much tougher prospects in the House, where Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan said last week he was "significantly short" of the 71 votes needed. Democrats hold exactly 71 seats in the House, and local Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, has said he will under no circumstance vote in favor of it.

Democratic lawmakers in 2011 raised the flat tax on individuals from 3 to 5 percent – a 67 percent increase – promising it as a "temporary" measure to address the state's serious financial woes. It is set to significantly expire on Jan. 1, but Quinn and other Democratic leaders are pushing to make it permanent.

While supporters of a progressive tax claim that the vast majority of people will pay less under several proposed tax structures, critics point out that the claim is based on the increased 5 percent rate, not the 3.75 percent it is scheduled to decrease to next year. They also point out that the promise could be broken just as easily as the promise that the 67 percent tax hike will be temporary, and that lawmakers with a progressive tax could increase rates to whatever they want at any time.

On the Net

You can read every proposed amendment to the Illinois Constitution that has been filed by state lawmakers at www.ilga.gov.

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