The process to appoint a replacement for state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, is veiled in secrecy.

That’s the way it usually works. Under state law, local party leaders have the right to fill legislative vacancies. Unlike other states, no special elections are held.

Because Hutchinson is a Democrat, her party will choose a successor. When asked about it, a local Democratic Party leader revealed there were four applicants for the position but declined to identify them. I’m told Hutchinson’s last day is Sunday.

After she resigns, the state party has 30 days to appoint a replacement.

Both Democrats and Republicans typically cloak the entire appointment process in secrecy. However, Kankakee County Democratic Chairman John Willard said his party will hold a public meeting, although constituents will be barred from asking questions of candidates.

I’m glad a public meeting is planned, but I think candidates should field questions from prospective constituents — something like the interview process for presidential candidates at Kankakee Community College.

Why can’t we hold special elections when legislators resign? Both Democrats and Republicans warn that such elections cost taxpayers a lot, while private appointment processes cost practically nothing.

That’s an easy argument for them to make because they’re the ones filling vacancies. But it could be argued the costs of special elections are worth the benefits to democracy.

Most vacancies occur when legislators resign. The most understandable reason is health. But many others quit because they find higher-paying jobs, often as lobbyists. Hutchinson is leaving to take a $220,000-a-year job in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration.

For years, I have suspected that so many legislators resign in Illinois because party insiders get to appoint replacements. It would be harder to quit mid-term if they knew that taxpayers would foot the bill for a special election.

I decided to see how Illinois compares against Iowa, which holds special elections when vacancies occur. I checked on how members of each state’s senate got into office in the first place.

In Illinois, 32 percent of senators were originally appointed to their positions. By comparison, just 20 percent of Iowa senators initially got their jobs through special elections. Perhaps Iowa’s lawmakers are a big more reluctant to leave early because of what it will cost their constituents.

In Illinois, once a senator or representative is appointed, that person enjoys a much greater ability than their future election competitors to collect big corporate donations. I’ve looked at the campaign finance reports of scores of legislators. For the most part, it’s not local folks contributing to their campaigns. Rather, it’s the powerful special interests who dominate. This trend applies to both of our local lawmakers, Hutchinson and Rep. Lindsay Parkhurst, R-Kankakee.

Most legislative districts are drawn for either one party or another. Hutchinson’s 40th District is solidly Democrat. The party’s appointee will likely be the next state senator for years, thanks to the cash advantage. That may not be what you learned in civics class, but that’s the way politics works.

IT’S BOTH PARTIES

This column is not an indictment against Democrats, who have the vacancy this time. It is criticism of both parties, who have long kept the public of the loop when vacancies occur.

Our job is to shine light on the process.

David Giuliani is a reporter for the Daily Journal. His column “As It Is” expands upon regular news coverage. He can be reached at 815-802-5144 or dgiuliani@daily-journal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TDJ_dgiuliani.

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