Budget, ethics bills again kept secret before last-minute votes, Madigan style

Budget, ethics bills again kept secret before last-minute votes, Madigan style

Illinois politicians used Madigan’s teachings – avoid messy democracy and disenfranchise taxpayers – by again waiting until the last minute to pass major legislation. Good things rarely grow in the dark.

The Illinois General Assembly is up to the old tricks perfected by former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan: negotiate in secret, vote when it is too late for opposition.

Again, Illinois is in the waning minutes of the legislative session and lawmakers see no need to publicly share the budget for the new fiscal year. In 2019, lawmakers proposed and passed a budget in less than 24 hours after needing to go into an overtime session because they failed to pass it during the regular session. In 2018 lawmakers revealed a 1,245-page budget just five hours before passing it.

Lawmakers use “shell bills” to help quickly pass legislation right before deadlines with virtually no debate and little understanding of the contents of the final bill. The Illinois Constitution requires bills be read by title on three separate days before they can be passed, but once a bill is read on two separate days, it can be amended to include new language. Lawmakers then “gut and replace” the empty shell bill with hundreds or thousands of pages of language that can be quickly passed with no time for debate or review.

Like last year’s budget, the budget for this year has started with a shell bill in each chamber with a single sentence – House Bill 900 and Senate Bill 2800, respectively, one of which will ultimately contain the final budget language for the upcoming fiscal year. Now that the shell bills have been read on three separate occasions and can be amended, legislative leaders can pick one to fill with the actual budget language.

The legislative process should require bills be read by title on three separate days in their final form, ensuring lawmakers and the public get time to review legislation, comment on it and keep watch on how their taxes are spent. That would uphold the spirit of the constitution’s mandate that bills be read on three different days.

Continuing this sleight of hand means elected leaders and the public will never really know what’s in some of the most significant legislation coming out of the Statehouse. This allows lawmakers to continue bad budgeting practices, evade responsibility for Illinois’ poor fiscal condition and engage in ethically questionable behavior. It also makes their jobs much easier when they don’t need to engage in democracy.

Keeping voters and their legislative representatives in the dark on the budget until the last minute is wrong. State leaders had plenty of time to busy themselves with balloon launches and pitchfork fishing, but worked for only 10 minutes one day recently despite a list of major bills still needing consideration.

“We came up here to do real work because the state of Illinois has real problems that are holding people back. The level of work that has been done on serious issues up here is completely embarrassing. There’s no sense of urgency on things everyone knows are extremely important,” said state Rep. Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City.

Here’s what remains to be done:

State budget. Poor, last-minute budgeting with little review has contributed to Illinois’ current fiscal mess. Forcing lawmakers to read thousands of pages of legislation in hours has consistently meant passing bad budgets out of balance by billions of dollars. Illinois has now gone two decades without a truly balanced budget, despite being constitutionally required to have one. The state adds to the budget mess by using deceptive cash-based accounting methods rather than accrual-based methods, distorting finances by ignoring when bills are due and revenues actually in the coffers. This accounting lets Illinois ignore $3.4 billion in unpaid bills, which don’t include the $3 billion loan Illinois needs to repay the Federal Reserve soon.

Legislative maps. Democratic lawmakers recently promised plenty of time for the public to review new legislative districts, but they were only unveiled May 21. The maps immediately drew fire from 13 good government groups, including the League of Women Voters. The maps lumped 23 Republicans and three Democrats together, all but guaranteeing more Democratic-leaning districts in a state already dominated by the party. Lawsuits are likely against the maps that used census estimates rather than the actual detailed counts, which remain delayed by the pandemic.

Ethics reforms. Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch said lawmakers are working on ethics legislation, but “those things take time.” Time is running out. Democrats’ omnibus package, Senate Bill 4, is most likely to become law with a Democratic supermajority in the General Assembly. Republicans have their own omnibus proposal filed in Senate Bill 1350, but its future is sketchy. Lawmakers should stop lobbying while in office, put at least a one-year ban on lobbying after they leave office, beef up financial disclosures and grant the Office of the Legislative Inspector General the freedom to pursue investigations and release the results without being checked by the lawmakers the inspector is tasked with overseeing.

Education. State lawmakers may reject Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s call to cut the Invest in Kids scholarships that help low-income families send their children to the schools that best fit their needs. They may also make the scholarships permanent, if they pass House Bill 4076. Half of the scholarships go to minority students, offering them a chance to succeed when the public school system doesn’t work for them. Lawmakers are also considering imposing health rules with potential punishment on public and private schools through House Bill 2789. The measure is seen as an attempt at government intrusion into private schools’ success at keeping students in the classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic while many public schools essentially lost a year. The bill drew opposition from 16,663 Illinoisans, and was favored by only 136, as of May 27.

The Illinois General Assembly wraps up business and leaves town after Memorial Day. Illinoisans deserve a better process than backroom deals and votes on half-understood bills.

University of Illinois-Springfield professor emeritus Kent D. Redfield said a fundamental problem exists with Illinois’ concentrated control of the legislative process, from staff resources to policy information. It is designed to weaken the power of other members.

“Would empowering rank and file legislators make the legislature or Illinois politics more ethical? It might,” Redfield said. “It is certainly worth a try.”

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