Reeder: State ‘mushroom’ budget process all too typical
By Scott Reeder firstname.lastname@example.org April 3, 2013 10:14PM
Updated: May 5, 2013 2:43PM
There is a derogatory term for our legislators in Springfield — mushrooms.
That refers to them being 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 2-year-old gripping her Easter candy.
Often, state budgets are worked out behind closed doors by the governor and the four legislative leaders and then foisted upon rank-and-file lawmakers, and the public, during the waning hours of a legislative session.
Keep in mind that 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 deciding on the budget is usually the most important vote a lawmaker casts in any given year, legislators typically don’t get to see the final document until moments before they vote.
Take last year, for example. House members had about two hours between the time the 2013 budget was presented and when 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 House Rules Committee, also known as the legislative graveyard.
Kay isn’t surprised. 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.”
Republicans were just as bad when they were in charge of the Legislature. This isn’t about partisan politics, it’s about power.
Legislative leaders want to control the information that their members receive. That’s why 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 the state budget that lawmakers aren’t supposed to notice.
For example, 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 when legislators voted.
But after the vote, Blagojevich crowed that he had tricked them. The money was actually going toward stem cell research, including the use of controversial embryonic stem cells that many lawmakers opposed 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. But not Blagojevich. He argued that his ends justified his means.
Such trickery would be thwarted by actually giving legislators enough time to peruse the budget and ask questions.
To Kay, this lack of budget 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 the balance sheet — numbers that balance. Why should it surprise anyone that we don’t have a waiting period to review our budget?”
House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) don’t need a law to give members of their chambers at least 72 hours to review the state budget.
They can do it on their own but choose not to do so. 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, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.