Pontiac's new state representative is Josh Harms from Watseka. Harms was sworn into office on January 8, 2013, just one week ago. Two days later, he introduces legislation to change the Illinois Constitution.
Most freshmen lawmakers take a little time to get to know the job. Harms was elected with no previous political, business, legislative, or elected public service experience. He never so much as ran for city council, or even a school board.
Now, with less than 48 hours of experience, which is primarily inauguration parties and receptions, Representative Harms submits legislation that would change our state's constitution by changing the Legislative branch?
On January 11th, Rep. Harms filed HJRCA0004, which is a House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment. Harms is specifically targeting two sections of Article IV (THE LEGISLATURE) of the Illinois Constitution.
Before I explain what Harms is attempting to do with this legislation, I need to explain how the Legislature is currently structured.
The Illinois Legislature contains the Senate and the House. Illinois is divided into 59 Legislative Districts, each represented by one state senator. This number of districts is set by the state Constitution, which also sets the number of Representative Districts at 118, which is two representatives per Legislative District.
In other words, each state senator's district is divided into two smaller “representative” districts, each being represented by a state representative.
What Harms is proposing mostly targets redistricting. We've all seen how the crazy redistricting last year led to some wild districts. Harms represents the 106th district, which spans from the Indiana border to Eureka. Other districts were carved out specifically to eliminate some elected officials, or to pin two elected officials of the same party against each other in the same district.
Several years ago, State Representative Dan Rutherford was targeted by Democrats who were in charge of redistricting. The Democrats specifically split Rutherford's district right through the center of Pontiac. For the past ten years, Pontiac had two representatives.
Redistricting is a game played by both parties. It's a way to swing areas to your party's advantage. It's politics at its worst, because it directly affects the voters and those who represent them.
During the campaign, Harms was vocal about the redistricting problem. If I recall correctly, Harms was calling for computerized redistricting, which would remove all personal and political bias from the process. Most of the candidates supported computerized redistricting, including me. But just like Harms' views on gambling expansion and legislative pensions, he changed his mind with the introduction of this first bill of his political career.
First, changing the Constitution of the State of Illinois is a huge task. Introduction of such legislation would be best left up to your senator or a long-term representative who has some political weight. A newbie, who introduces legislation on day two is just asking to not be taken seriously. The truth is there is a game to be played, and if you are serious about making serious changes, you have to play the game a little. You don't have to be a sheep, but you do have to at least try to look like you respect the process. You also need to build some respect of others, because you'll need their support.
Harms just jumped off the deep end and submitted legislation that will surely fail. First, it's a major change to the state Constitution. Second, it doesn't make sense. Third, it can't work because Harms apparently doesn't know how the state legislature and districts work.
The first major error Harms makes is in Section 2 (LEGISLATIVE COMPOSITION).
This section establishes how each Legislative District is represented. It says each Legislative District shall have one senator. It further says each Legislative District shall be divided into two Representative Districts. This is how it is now. Each senator has two representative districts and those two representatives work with their senator.
Harms removes the first sentence in paragraph (b) of Section 2, which is, “Each Legislative District shall be divided into two Representative Districts.”
Removing this sentence decouples Representative Districts from Legislative Districts completely. In doing so, several problems are created:
- Redistricting would become two separate processes. Senate and representative districts would have nothing to do with each other, creating even more confusing district maps.
- Senators could have more than two Representatives in districts they represent. Likewise, Representatives could share their districts with multiple Senators. This would create confusion for both the areas being represented, and for those representing them.
It's possible a community like Pontiac could have two senators, and a dozen representatives. Since there would be no established outer boundaries for Representative Districts, one representative could have multiple senators covering areas within their district, and visa versa.
If redistricting has been a problem, why split it into two separate problems? This doesn't make sense to me. It will be more confusing for the voters and for the elected officials. It's also a major situation for county clerks who are required to have ballots for each precinct's district(s). This idea seems to add to the problem. Why Harms thinks this is a good idea is beyond me.
Next, Harms' bill completely restructures how redistricting would work.
To keep it simple for this blog, what Harms wants to do is have the leaders for both parties of each branch of the legislature (House and Senate), appoint two members each to a Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission. This would put four Republicans and four Democrats on the Commission. This commission itself would then appoint one additional member to the commission, who would then become the Chair and the ninth, tie-breaking vote.
There are a lot of stipulations for this Commission's eligibility, which attempts to eliminate conflicts of interest. However, there are so many restrictions that I'm not sure you'll find any one who can serve on the commission. Further, both parties will put members on the Commission that will vote in favor of their own party, so there will surely be voting ties. How do does a dead-locked Commission appoint a Chair in the first place? The logic isn't there.
What it comes down to is this Commission creates the redistricting maps. There is no “computerized” mapping, as many have found to be the most fair process to adopt. It's still up to the politicians who will swing deals in the backroom. It's the same problem, different recipe.
Harms then outlines redistricting requirements. Some of these requirements include that the districts shall be “substantially equal in population,” and they shall be “compact.”
It also says the redistricting plan “shall not be drawn to purposefully or significantly favor or discriminate against any political party or group.” However, the bill fails to define what that means.
Then, in a move that surprised even me, Harms' bill grants the power to define the restrictions TO THE COMMISSION ITSELF! That's right! “The Commission shall establish definitions where applicable for each of the criteria listed...” Whoa! That's an open invite to do whatever they want. The purpose of a law is to define and spell-out what they can and cannot do. But Harms wants to give this commission of politicians the right to define this section any way they wish. That eliminates the courts and the ability for the courts to decided of the law is being followed or not. It's stupid on top of crazy.
I don't know about you, but I want to LIMIT our government – not give them more ability to manipulate with loopholes and open-ended definitions that they come up with on their own. We need to make the process simple and remove all of the politics. That's how you make it fair.
Further, Harms' bill contains a situation what allows his entire law to become worthless and puts the redistricting of our entire state into the hands of the Commission and bypasses the legislative body.
Basically, there is a time-table for the Commission to submit a plan. (I'll call it plan #1.) If the legislature votes it down, then there is more time for a plan #2. If plan #2 is also rejected by the legislature, then the Commission gets to select either of the two previously rejected plans, and we have to live with it. In other words, the Commission could submit a plan they like, and if it's rejected by the Senate and House, the Commission could create a horrible plan that they know will be rejected, which in turn grants the Commission the power to force plan #1 to be adopted without any more say by anyone. This is called NO CHECKS AND BALANCES! It's a play from the same playbook that brings us politically manipulated redistricting in the first place.
Another part of Harms' bill grants the right for anyone within the Legislature, and anyone from the PUBLIC, to submit a redistricting plan. Why? If you have a good idea, you should contact your state representative or senator. Why should the public do a run-around of their elected officials? This could also lead to thousands of plans being submitted to the Commission, causing them to bog-down.
It seems to me that Harms is lost. We all want to change Illinois and fix our problems, but this isn't the way to do it. His ill-conceived bill doesn't work, can't pass, and wasn't thought through. It would actually create more problems with redistricting, while at the same time granting more power to the politicians we all complain about. It's backwards from what we need. It's opposite of what Harms said he was going to do. Then again, this is typical of politicians.
Harms represents us, and this type of inexperience shows Springfield that we (and Harms) can't be taken seriously. I'm embarrassed.
Illinois won't deal with redistricting for another ten years, anyway. Perhaps Mr. Harms should have spent a little more time thinking about it and developing a good solution together with others, instead of trying to hurry up and pass a law all by himself.
After all, Josh Harms constantly said on the campaign trail... “We don't need people to go to Springfield just to pass more laws...” Harms wasn't in office for 48 hours before trying to create another law.
It's funny how what typical politicians say on the campaign trail is tossed out the window once they are elected.
So much for electing someone different.
DISCLOSURE: For full disclosure, Scott McCoy ran against Josh Harms for the Illinois 106th Representative seat, along with several other candidates.