This editorial appeared in the Feb. 23, 2018, edition of The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
Do legislative leaders really care what the people think? Not as much as one would hope.
In a state where politics routinely trumps policy, politics often drives faux policy — especially when it comes to advisory referendums.
That's one of the reasons why a state Senate committee took steps this week to put an advisory referendum on marijuana legalization on the fall ballot.
On its face, it doesn't sound like a terrible idea. After all, many candidates have proposed the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, including all the Democratic gubernatorial candidates with the exception of Chris Kennedy.
They appear to be of the opinion that recreational use of marijuana represents an unadulterated social good that will have the additional benefit of producing millions and millions of dollars in new revenue for the fiscally failing state.
But this idea — a purely advisory referendum — is being used by the General Assembly's Democratic leadership as a means of boosting voter turnout in a way that will benefit them.
Why is that so?
Four years ago, in the 2014 gubernatorial contest between incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn and Republican challenge Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan did the same exact thing.
Madigan & Co. put advisory referendums on the ballot that they perceived would be helpful in attracting voters to the polls to vote both in favor of the referendums and to re-elect Quinn.
How does the public know that Madigan's motive was purely political in putting advisory measures on the ballot? Because he said so.
During an August 2015 interview with a Springfield television station, Madigan explained:
"Now let me just explain this: There was an advisory question on the ballot in November of 2014 concerning the minimum wage. And the thinking was that if somebody came to vote for the advisory question on the minimum wage, their political thinking would be such that they would vote for Gov. Quinn. Well, there were 650,000 Illinoisans who found their way to vote for the advisory question on the minimum wage, but couldn't find their way to vote for Gov. Quinn. And that's where I would say that Quinn lost the election, not Rauner won."
That's straight from the horse's mouth.
As to the referendums themselves, they received an overwhelmingly favorable vote.
Having heard the people express their will, did the General Assembly under Madigan's supermajority leadership pass a $15-an-hour minimum wage or a surtax on millionaires during Rauner's first two years in office? No.
Madigan and Democrats could have flexed their political muscles and passed both proposals. In 2017, they passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but only because they knew they didn't have the votes to override a Rauner veto. (They could do so again this year.)
But it was strictly for show, just like the advisory referendums.
The simple fact is Madigan & Co. didn't care about the results of the advisory referendums. They cared about what they hoped would be the political benefits of putting the advisory referendums on the ballot.
It's the same thing with legalization of marijuana. There seems to be little doubt that legalization will come soon or later, just as it has in other states. But the advisory referendum proposal, like so much else in Illinois state government, is a sham embraced by the politicians to manipulate the voters.