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The Complete Guide to 2014 Ballot Referenda

You’ll have a long ballot waiting for you at the voting booth tomorrow. Here’s what you need to know about the various initiatives.

Photo: Geoff Ziezulewicz/Chicago Tribune

Tomorrow’s general election ballot is a long one: alongside the marquee battles for governor and U.S. senator, for state office and county office and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District office (three of the district’s nine board seats are up for election, in case you’re curious as to where your water vote goes), are a dozen referenda that will determine whether the state constitution is amended—and, well, that’s about it.

Excepting a handful of suburban referenda—including a potential library “annexation” in northwest Plato Township—state, county, and local referenda on raising the minimum wage, instituting a “millionaire tax,” banning assault weapons, and funding mental-health services are all merely advisory. Votes won’t immediately change the law, then, though they’ll almost certainly be used to dictate the legislative agenda in Springfield when the new assembly meets in January. Local issues that are being put to a vote—such as a proposed CTA flyover in Lakeview, a moratorium on metal shredders in Pilsen, and revised noise standards at O’Hare—are also likely to alter aldermanic campaign strategies in the lead-up to February’s city elections.

To help you make sense of all these nonbinding, advisory referenda—along with the two proposed constitutional amendments—here’s a guide to what you need to know. Head to the County Clerk’s site for an exhaustive run-down of referenda that will be on ballots in the suburbs, or to the city’s Board of Election Commissioners to get an idea of the length of the ballot itself.

Constitutional amendments

One proposed amendment would strengthen the Illinois Constitution’s Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights, requiring that victims be notified of all court proceedings involving their alleged offenders. The amendment would also ensure that victims can submit impact statements relevant to plea negotiations and prison releases—an existing right that is not always enforced in the courts. (Rich Miller explains why this is being proposed as a constitutional amendment, rather than a state statute, here.)

Known as Marsy’s Law, after a student whose murder led to a similar law in California, the proposed amendment is part of a nationwide movement to codify the rights of crime victims. It made it to the ballot after the overwhelming approval of the legislature, and is strongly supported by Attorney General Lisa Madigan . Some critics fear that it may slow trial proceedings and interfere with the ability of the accused to gather information for their defense.

Another proposed amendment aims to strengthen the rights of voters by prohibiting voter discrimination based on “race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or income.” This isn’t a particularly controversial proposal—overt voter discrimination isn’t legal, after all—but it would prohibit future changes to the voting process (reduced early voting, mandatory photo identification) that would disproportionately affect minorities.

To be ratified, the amendments would need approval from three-fifths of everyone who votes on the question, or from a majority of everyone voting in the general election.

State referenda

Voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota will all decide whether to raise their states’ minimum wage. That won’t be the case in Illinois. Democrats weren’t able to pass a minimum wage hike earlier this year—or, as their critics have argued, decided to hold off on passing a wage hike to try and increase voter turnout by adding a popular referendum to the ballot—so instead voters will be asked what they think: keep the minimum at $8.25, or raise it to $10? An emphatic “Yes” would put the pressure on legislators and on potential-governor-to-be Bruce Rauner, who’s said he’d back a wage hike if pro-business initiatives were approved at the same time. (In September, Chicago crunched the numbers on what a minimum wage increase would mean.)

Another Democrat-led proposal that never gained traction in the spring: a “millionaire tax,” which would impose an additional 3-percentage-point tax on incomes of $1 million or more, with the money going toward schools. (Illinois has a flat-rate income tax system, currently at 5 percent.) The proposal was originally meant as a binding constitutional amendment, but legislators didn’t bite. The state Revenue Department estimates the tax would generate around $1 billion. Not surprisingly, Governor Quinn backs the proposal, while Rauner has focused on cutting spending rather than increasing tax revenues.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, in June, another nonbinding referendum asks voters if insurance plans with prescription drug coverage should be required to cover prescription birth control. Like other nonbinding referenda, the result of this vote is in some ways meaningless—particularly so, in this case, as Illinois law has mandated birth control coverage since 2004. “Let me interpret this for you,” said Senator Kyle McCarter, a Republican, earlier this year. “The Dems are loading the ballot with referendums that mean nothing, just so they can get their traditional supporters out to the polls to vote for them, so they can protect their power, position, and pension.” The referendum’s supporters have said that the vote would serve to reinforce the public’s stand on the issue, particularly in the aftermath of Hobby Lobby. In that case, the court ruled that mandatory contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional, violating religious freedoms.

County referenda

The Cook County Board can’t take direct action on gun control or mental health care funding, though it’s gauging voter sentiment on both issues. One referendum would recommend the passage of an Illinois Senate bill requiring background checks for firearm sales and prohibiting assault weapon sales. Another—spurred by health clinic closures in Chicago and mentally ill inmates at Cook County Jail —asks whether mental health care funding should be increased across the state.

City and local referenda

Marijuana dispensaries, noise around O’Hare, the CTA, and metal shredders are all on the ballot in Chicago. The rules for opening a medical marijuana shop are already strict (Chicago had a tough time finding allowable locations in Logan Square, for example), but one referendum asks if cities and villages should be more involved in the process. For now, three shops have permits within the city limits.

A record number of noise complaints from residents around O’Hare have led Chicago and seven nearby suburbs to ask whether noise standards for the airport should be revisited. Jon Hilkevitch details potential changes here, noting that most of the noise issues have arisen due to a change in flight patterns. In August, the Chicago Department of Aviation received 30,249 noise complaints—though officials say 44 percent of those complaints came from just 11 addresses.

One last citywide referendum asks whether the state’s school-funding formula should be adjusted, providing more money for schools that enroll students in poverty or who speak English as a second language. According to CPS, 16 percent of its students are “English-language learners”; 85 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Finally, some Pilsen residents—those in the 25th Ward’s Precinct 2—will vote on a nonbinding referendum calling for a moratorium on metal shredders in the ward. The vote is directed against a proposed $30 million shredder at Loomis and Cermak, which is supported by Alderman Danny Solis as a job-creator. Some residents fear that the shredder would cause environmental problems, and would be too close to Benito Juarez Community Academy.

A similar referendum will be on ballots in Lakeview’s 44th Ward (precincts 20, 36, and 38), where the CTA has proposed a $320 million track expansion, known as the Belmont Bypass, that would reduce wait times where Red, Brown, and Purple Line trains converge. Officials say the bypass would prevent delays and increase services, while residents have expressed concerns over cost, as well as the damage the proposal would do to the streetscape. Sixteen residential buildings would need to be acquired and demolished.

NB: three additional referendum questions—which, you might think, would include the possibility of an elected school board—will be on the ballot in a few months, for February 24’s city elections. (Keep on waiting, or letter writing, if you’re hoping for that elected school board question.)

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