Illinois politicians talk a lot about transparency but rarely practice it — even among themselves.
State budgets are negotiated behind closed doors between the governor and legislative leaders. Sometimes members of the minority party are included, but other times, such as this year, not so much.
This month, once a budget agreement was reached behind those locked doors, lawmakers found themselves voting on a 3,400-page, $46.5 billion operating budget a few hours later.
Think any of them knew exactly what they were voting on? No way.
Is this unusual in Springfield? No. But it has never served the public well.
Whether the governor’s last name happens to be Pritzker, Rauner, Quinn, Blagojevich or Ryan, the secrecy persists.
I began covering the General Assembly in 1988. I can say both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of this practice. “Good-government-type” politicians and political hacks are equally guilty too.
“They didn’t talk to Republicans during the budgeting process at all, and they don’t need to,” state Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia, said. “Why would they? This is kind of the result you get: a closed-door budget to make sure everybody in their caucus is happy.”
In politics, knowledge is power.
Taxpayers and bondholders deserve to know how our money is being spent. But the budget document is so opaque it is often hard to discern whether major new initiatives have been slipped into the spending plan – even if those voting on it had adequate time to review it.
For example, in 2005, the General Assembly rejected spending state money on stem cell research. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who favored the measure, snuck $10 million in stem cell research spending into the budget by labeling it “scientific research.”
Lawmakers were understandably angry when they figured out they had been tricked into voting for something they had opposed.
Blagojevich shrugged and said the end justified the means.
And there is the rub. Deception is often the key to legislative success. The closed-door process benefits political insiders, legislative power brokers and a host of special interests. But it rarely benefits voters.
It shows contempt not just for the minority party but also for the rank-and-file lawmakers of the majority party, who are derisively referred to as “mushrooms” because they are kept in the dark and fed a lot of, er, um, manure.
The budget was hurriedly debated and voted on during an all-night session. Why? Well, if they act fast – before lawmakers and constituents have reviewed the spending plans contents – they can beat any possible new opposition.
“You’re trying to track everything and there’s a lot of last-minute changes because, you know, amendments get filed at the last possible moment,” state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said. “And it does make it very difficult to know exactly what’s in there. I’m sure we’ll see things coming out over the next several weeks about things that were tucked in there or mistakes that were made.”
His view was echoed by state Rep. Sandy Hamilton, R-Springfield. “We can do better than this to improve transparency. After all, the budget is spending taxpayers’ money. The people of Illinois should have far more input.”
• Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at email@example.com.