SPRINGFIELD — When it comes to the Illinois Legislature and its budgeting process, few know what goes on behind closed doors.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — When it comes to the Illinois Legislature and its budgeting process, few know what goes on behind closed doors.

Five appropriation committees in the Illinois House of Representatives have moved to closed-door meetings to hash out the details of the state budget, especially where and how to cut state spending.

“The committees are meeting in closed session to hammer out and to talk about some issues that they don’t feel comfortable doing in the public,” State Rep. Robert Pritchard, R-Hinckley, said.

But that contention isn’t sitting well with some people.

“Public confidence is so low in Illinois lawmakers that it is not helped at all when things are done behind closed doors,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Unlike in recent years, rank-and-file legislators this year have more say in the process of crafting a budget. For the past few years, the General Assembly sent the governor lump sums of money and allowed the state’s chief executive officer to decide how and where to spend the funds.

Lawmakers said they are hesitant to float some needed, but politically dangerous, cuts in public because of the potential repercussions.

Pritchard, who serves on two education appropriation committees, said meeting in private takes off the pressure legislators face from advocacy groups that might see cuts. It also allows for frank discussions, he said.

These “working committees” generally take place before an appropriations committee, but in a few cases the public has been kicked out of a hearing so the legislators could move the talks about the budget out of the public’s earshot.

Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a think-tank that promotes “progressive tax, spending and economic policies,” according to its website, challenged Pritchard’s contention that privacy is paramount for the budget-making process.

“What are they so afraid of?” Martire asked. “We have a right as taxpayers and voters in this state to understand what the real issues are, what the real pressures are, if we need to cut, if we need to raise revenue.”

What happens in the meetings is less important than how members vote in public, according to state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago. Feigenholtz chairs the House Human Services Appropriations Committee.

Feigenholtz said any budget proposal that surfaces would be in the public record for a period before the House votes on the measure, giving anyone interested the time to offer suggestions. And, she defended the closed-door process.

“I think that elected representatives who have been sent down here to represent their constituencies and to lead the charge on better health care in Illinois, more efficient health care, a smarter spending package on how we do what we do, is exactly what the public wants,” Feigenholtz said.

Long-time statehouse observer and professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield Kent Redfield likened the new process to how the United States Congress handles the budgeting process — divvying up the budget into bills that represent different departments and agencies.

Like others, he said the return to the practice of lawmakers controlling the budget is a step in the right direction for Illinois, even though it’s not what everyone may want.

“It’s much more participatory from the members’ standpoint than what’s been in recent history, but it’s not transparent in terms of a situation where all the decisions and agreements are made in public,” said Redfield, who also works with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that pushes for accountability and transparency in government. “You probably never do get to that.”

Steve Schnorf, who was budget director under former Republican governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan in the 1990s and through 2002, said during his time in state government he saw responsibility of the final budget gradually distill to the four legislative leaders and the governor.

It might not be ideal, but giving legislators the opportunity to take on the state’s finances might mean some talks don’t take place in front of the public, he said. It allows some ideas to be floated that otherwise might not have seen the light of day, he said.

“Those discussions, at least the preliminary ones, the early ones, taking place in a closed environment or a more private environment are pretty understandable to me,” Schnorf said. “That way a legislator can say freely, ‘look, I hate to even suggest this, but maybe we need to cut home services and aging by $200 million.'”

John Tillman, chief executive officer of the Illinois Policy Institute, said as long as legislators aren’t breaking the law, some closed meetings can be useful. He did have one caveat, however.

“Whatever the results of these discussions are, they then have to be fully vetted in the open committee hearing or the House floor once it gets to that state,” Tillman said.

The Illinois Policy Institute is a nonpartisan research organization dedicated to supporting free market principles and liberty-based public policy initiatives, according to its website.

State Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Westmont, who serves on the same committee as Feigenholtz, this week said she sat through a six-hour closed meeting to dive into the numbers. Having open and closed meetings are essential to creating a budget that everyone can agree on, she said.

“I think it’s been a fair process in (our chamber) because we’ve had the human service appropriations hearings, so we’ve allowed all the people to come to us and give those views,” Bellock said. “We’ve taken those views back so I think this process has worked well.”

Jennifer Fuller, president of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association, said the proof will be in the final outcome.

“What we’ll have to watch is when the final budget, or even a tentative budget, comes out, how well does that match what happened in those open hearings?” Fuller asked. “If it appears lawmakers took testimony into consideration, then perhaps our concerns aren’t as serious.”

The General Assembly has until the end of May to pass a budget. After that, more votes are required for passage, requiring Republican support in a Legislature controlled by Democrats.

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