SPRINGFIELD – There is a term for rank-and-file legislators in Springfield: mushrooms.
They are called that because they are kept in the dark and shoveled a lot of manure by their leaders.
In politics, information is power.
And those in power in Springfield hold on to information as tightly as a jealous 2-year-old gripping her Easter candy.
Often, state budgets are hammered out behind closed doors by the governor and legislative leaders, and then foisted upon rank-and-file lawmakers – and the public – during the waning minutes of the legislative session.
Keep in mind the Illinois state budget is thicker than an old Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog and allocates more money than the individual economies of 110 nations.
Even though approving or rejecting a budget is the most important vote a lawmaker casts in any given year, they don’t get to see the final document until moments before they vote. Last year was typical. House members had about two hours between the time the 2013 budget was presented and the time it came up for a vote, said state Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon.
Kay introduced a bill this year to require that proposed budgets be given to lawmakers for review at least 72 hours in advance.
Not surprisingly, the bill is going nowhere. The measure has been referred to the Rules Committee, also known as the legislative graveyard.
Kay wasn’t surprised by the outcome. After all this is the third time during his brief legislative career that he has introduced a measure such as this.
“To me, 72 hours is the absolute minimum necessary to review a budget,” he said. “Last year, we got two hours before it came up for a vote. Why do they do this? I think it’s because some people don’t want it known how much money is going to Chicago versus the rest of the state. Or they don’t want it known how much money is going to some worthless programs.”
Information is power after all.
Republicans were just as bad when they were in charge. This isn’t about partisan politics – it’s about power. Legislative leaders want to control the information their members receive. That’s why rank-and-file lawmakers as well as reporters and the public, are left in the dark over what‘s happening in those closed-door budget meetings.
Things are hidden in budgets that lawmakers aren’t supposed to notice.
For example, back in 2005 then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich slipped a $10 million line item into the budget “for grants and related expenses of hospitals and universities for scientific research.”
The item went unnoticed by rank-and-file lawmakers when they voted.
But after the vote Blagojevich crowed that he had tricked them.
The money was actually going toward research on therapies using stem cells, including controversial embryonic stem cells. Many lawmakers, at the time, opposed this type of research on religious grounds.
Whether you agree or disagree with embryonic stem cell research, most people would agree that elected representatives ought to at least know what they are voting on. Such trickery would be thwarted by actually giving legislators a chance to read the budget – and ask questions.
To Kay, this lack of transparency has landed the Land of Lincoln in its current fiscal crisis.
“We live in a state where [lawmakers] don’t seem to know the difference between a debit and a credit,” he said. “It’s a state where they don’t know what a balance sheet is yet alone what should be at the end of balance sheet – numbers that balance. Why should it surprise anyone that we don’t have a waiting period to review our budget?”
House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton don’t have to have a law to give members of their chambers 72 hours to review budgets. They can do it on their own.
Let’s demand this year that they do.
• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.