Is The Growing Number Of Illinois Lawmakers Leaving Springfield Unusual?

Sep 1, 2017

About 20 Illinois lawmakers so far have announced they are leaving the state legislature. For some, it's effective immediately. For others, it means they will not run for re-election -- and the list keeps growing.

But is this kind of turnover normal in Springfield?

State Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, recently announced he will not run again this coming term. He served for more than a decade in the Illinois Senate after he retired from a 33-year career in law enforcement. So, Bivins says, he thought 11 years was long enough for him to serve as a state senator.

“I wasn’t going down there to make it a whole other career,” Bivins said, "but I’ve been able to have some impact, I think, on a lot of different legislation in a lot of different areas, and so I’m satisfied with that.

Bivins says he was a primary sponsor for more than 10 bills and resolutions this year alone – several of which were signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in the last month.

Bivins says the current political climate in Springfield wasn’t a big reason for his own departure, but he knows it bothered some of the others enough to get out of the capitol. He adds the sheer number of lawmakers leaving this time around isn’t completely out of the ordinary.

“There’s an important thing to remember here, too, is that in the Senate, in the first eight or eight-and-a-half years that I was there or been there, out of 59 senators, 38 have changed over,” Bivins said.

For those of you doing the math, that’s more than 60 percent of those seats turning over during that time.

“The average stay in the Senate is about eight years; the average stay in the House as a Representative is about six years,” Bivins said, “so its turnover is pretty constant, which you don’t really realize that until you’re there.”

That may be something to consider when talking about term limits in general for Illinois lawmakers. Sarah Brune, executive director for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says the campaign doesn’t have an official stance on term limits, per se, but she says the group has done research on states that require them.

“Some of the pros are some turnover that people desire,” Brune said. “It prohibits people from serving what some people may consider too long in office.”

But Brune says there are some drawbacks to term limits. “And what we’ve seen in other states is that, when very experienced legislators resign or are forced to leave, that can create sort of a vacuum of knowledge,” Brune said.

Brune says, the legislative process is hard – especially during this last term with the budget impasse and education funding. “I think many of the rank-and-file legislators who have long been considered leaders in their specific issue areas suffered a lot of tension and frustration throughout the entire budget impasse,” Brune said.

Chris Mooney, a political science professor at University of Illinois -- Springfield, agreed. “It’s really not a lot of fun to be in the General Assembly right now,” Mooney said.

Mooney says it’s not entirely unusual for the statehouse to see so much turnover at any given time. “You’re talking about a lot of people who have various things going on in their lives: Maybe they’re retiring, or they may be moving up in the political system, or they may be just getting out of politics and getting into the private sector, or whatever it is they’re doing,” Mooney said. “We’re Americans, and we change. That’s one of the most obvious characteristics about Americans is that we’re always on the move.”

So, Mooney says, there’s always turnover at the capitol. However, he says the turnover seems to be a little higher than usual, and the pressures that came with answering to constituents affected by the budget impasse may have had something to do with some lawmakers wanting out of Springfield.

“They can’t bring home a lot of, you know, ball fields for the district, or great new programs that might solve great, big problems, or any of that,” Mooney said. “I mean, basically, all the job of the General Assembly for the foreseeable future is to do extremely hard things, and those are cut spending, so people don’t like that, and raise taxes, and people don’t like that, either.”

Mooney says people also need to keep in mind that a lot of these lawmakers left comfortable jobs to serve the public literally at a pay cut, so when they’re ripped apart on social media, morale won't be high for them during this time in the state's political history.

Brune says it’s also important to note that some lawmakers who are leaving are Republicans who voted to override Gov. Rauner’s veto of the budget.

“Some of them may be resigning because they fear a primary opponent,” Brune said, "or a very, very expensive, contentious election in 2018."

Speaking of the 2018 election: It's 15 months before the next general election. Mooney says now is about the time where people need to decide whether they run again or bow out. He says people start petitioning around this time, and they’ll be filing those petitions around Thanksgiving.

“It’s on people’s minds,” Mooney said, "and, of course, if a particular Representative or Senator’s not going to run, that affects the decision-making of others who might want to run, and most members are cognizant of that."

Charlie Wheeler heads the Public Affairs Reporting program at University of Illinois -- Springfield. He's seen a similar pattern in his experience as a Chicago Sun-Times statehouse reporter, but he also says impending redistricting may play a part in the mass exit this time around.

“So for example, after the census in 2020, the legislature will have to draw new maps for the General Assembly, and for Congress,” Wheeler said. "They’ll do that in 2021 and that’ll be in effect for the 2022 election."

So the consensus is that, while the budget and education funding may have discouraged some lawmakers, it’s reasonable to see so many leave at the same time, considering the timing of some recent legislative events.