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EYE ON ILLINOIS: Timing might not be right for fair maps bill, but reform push continues

Northwest Herald

Saturday, January 9, 2021  |  Commentary  |  By Scott T. Holland

Political Parties (Incld Tea Party) (39a) , Redistricting (78) Madigan, Michael--State House, 22

Well that escalated quickly.

Earlier this week it looked like the ongoing lame duck session of the Illinois General Assembly might be little more than a few House committee hearings. By late Thursday the Senate calendar was taking shape and several significant pieces of legislation had been introduced, perhaps none with more transformative potential than the 611-page amendment to House Bill 163 that could dramatically overhaul the way law enforcement operates in Illinois.

That plan and other prominent topics are likely to capture significant attention over the next few days. One topic I wish would draw similar focus is House Bill 5873, which would create a nonpartisan commission to draw the state’s legislative boundaries once Census data arrives.

House Republicans discussed their plans Tuesday, characterizing it as similar to a proposed 2016 amendment to the state constitution that never appeared before voters after opponents convinced the Illinois Supreme Court to strike it from the ballot. That proposal wasn’t flawless, and nonpartisan maps wouldn’t affect the Statehouse structure that concentrates heavy power among legislative leaders, but it did have the support of nearly 600,000 Illinoisans and at least represented a sincere reform effort.

Justice Lloyd Karmeier wrote the dissenting opinion in the 4-3 decision that killed those dreams, saying the majority decided the amendment would improperly assign new duties to the Auditor General. Since that office’s duties are enumerated in a different constitutional article — one not subject to amendment by voters — he said the majority determined the constitution actually prevents itself from being amended. The logic seems twisted, but it prevailed nonetheless.

Much as I’d like to see maps drawn apolitically, there’s little basis for short-term optimism. The Democrats, who stand ready to draw the new maps later this year, have no incentive to cede that power so close to the deadline. With Mike Madigan still entrenched as speaker, what are the circumstances under which he’d let this bill go before the full House? Further, even if all those impediments are somehow cleared by Wednesday, court challenges surely await.

Voters shouldn’t forget when Gov. JB Pritzker, then campaigning for the office, pledged to veto any maps “drafted or created by legislators, political party leaders and/or their staffs or allies.” Holding him to those words will hopefully be more successful than attempts to do so for former Gov. Pat Quinn, who used to be a fair map crusader in his own right before meekly approving Madigan’s maps in 2011.

This attempt, though unlikely to succeed over the next few days, certainly won’t be the last. Given the intense focus on electoral politics nationwide, Illinois won’t be alone under the gerrymandering microscope. It’s just one of many key issues to follow in 2021.