The voluntary exodus of lawmakers from the Illinois General Assembly is a telling symptom of the dysfunction that grips Springfield.
For years, members of the General Assembly have turned a blind eye to district maps that are illogical to the point of resembling Rorschach tests. Representatives and senators have resorted to constant campaigning to maintain their seats.
Now, as detailed in an Associated Press story this week, lawmakers are heading to the exits like students heading to Florida on spring break. The AP reported about 15 percent of the General Assembly have either resigned or announced they won’t seek re-election.
That number ticked up slightly Tuesday when John Cavaletto, R-Salem, announced he won’t seek a sixth term. Earlier his summer, Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Eldorado, citing health concerns, announced his resignation from the House. His cousin, Natalie Phelps Finnie, was appointed to serve the remainder of his term.
Another telling symptom of dysfunction, the legislators fleeing Springfield aren’t all Republicans tired of being the minority. Democrats are also calling it quits.
The most telling commentary regarding the exit came from Rep. Steve Anderson, a Geneva Republican.
“There is a toxic environment,” he said. “People seem to not be able to get along, even outside of the Capitol. That’s not a good environment, and that’s not an environment I want to be a part of.”
That sentiment is completely understandable. Most adults have experienced a dysfunctional workplace. The only reason to endure such misery is if a person believes strongly in his or her accomplishments.
Since we’re talking about the Illinois General Assembly, the last statement is obviously a non-starter. Illinois has just emerged from a two-year budget crisis. Legislators had to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto just to get a budget in place. Before they had a chance to catch their breath, they dealt with a contentious school-funding battle.
In addition to dealing with dysfunction and polarization, legislators must deal with constituents who are less than pleased with their work.
Anderson reported receiving hate mail, and even death threats, after breaking with other Republicans and casting a vote to break the budget stalemate.
The problems with Illinois state government are readily apparent. Dissatisfied voters have been clamoring for a housecleaning for years. And, the case can be made that legislators willing to walk away from their offices aren’t likely to cure what ails Springfield.
Still, there is something bothersome about the number of legislators willing to turn their backs on Springfield. Turnover of this magnitude raises concerns about the loss of institutional knowledge.
Conversely, Springfield can use an infusion of new ideas, new approaches. But, this feels too much like treating the symptoms while the actual disease festers. A lot of new members will be seated in 2018, but the specter of the Mike Madigan, Speaker of the House, vs. Gov. Bruce Rauner feud will overshadow Springfield, unless, or course, Madigan is denied an 18th term.
Still, unless Illinois makes fundamental changes, it’s unlikely there will be great change in the short term.
Illinois must make some fundamental changes. Redrawing districts would be a good start. The tortured political map benefits no one – except the majority party.
And one other thing -- we’d also like to see Illinois adopt new rules for replacing members who resign in mid-term. Phelps-Finnie is just the latest example, but the practice is essentially an Illinois tradition. In Southern Illinois alone, Dave Luechtefeld was appointed to fill Ralph Dunn’s senate term in 1995; Gary Forby was appointed to fill Larry Woolard’s senate term in 2003; John Bradley was appointed to fill Forby’s House seat; and Jerry Costello was appointed to fill Dan Reitz’s seat in 2011.
Currently, 31 of 118 members of the General Assembly were originally appointed to their seats. The people of Illinois deserve an elected, not an appointed, legislature.