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Citizen-Initiative proposal could give more power to special interest groups

by Lily Bohlke
Public News Service

Republican lawmakers will propose a series of constitutional amendments they say would give residents a more direct voice in Illinois government, but which critics counter could give more political power to special interests.

The three resolutions would open up the use of citizen initiatives, allow residents to hold referendums on legislation and expand the existing governor recall process to apply to all public officials.

Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois, said regulating campaign spending on ballot questions is nearly impossible, so the amendments could give wealthy special interests an outsized impact.

"It's hard to find that balance between empowering citizens and preventing special interests from hijacking the process," Kaplan acknowledged. "But we think it's a worthwhile discussion to be having right now."

She pointed to the example of an initiative in California in which companies such as Lyft, Uber and DoorDash spent $200 million to effectively overturn a state law requiring those companies to classify workers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Kaplan pointed out other efforts in various states have brought about important change.

Michigan established an independent commission for redistricting by a ballot question in 2018. That same year, New Mexico voters passed an initiative to create an independent state ethics commission to keep lawmakers in check.

"We really are missing out in Illinois on the opportunity to use citizen initiatives to enact meaningful reforms," Kaplan contended. "That's particularly true of areas where politicians might be particularly invested in the status quo and unwilling to act themselves."

She noted the legislative inspector general's office in Illinois has often been seen as ineffective in providing oversight over lawmakers. She hopes democracy reform, without the influence of big money, will help in the future.

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