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Reeder: Little voice for common man in Springfield

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

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Updated: June 29, 2013 6:08AM



Shortly before World War II, the famous artist Norman Rockwell painted an image depicting a working man standing to speak at a government meeting. Surrounded by men in suits, he stood there in a flannel shirt and a laborer’s jacket with an agenda stuck in its pocket.

The message was clear. We are a nation where the freedom to petition one’s government isn’t limited to the privileged.

Not so much in Springfield, where insiders eat ordinary folks for lunch.

I’ve seen it time and time again while covering the General Assembly — an ordinary person comes to Springfield to speak and gets brushed aside. The message is pretty clear: If you want to be heard in this town, hire a lobbyist.

It’s not that way everywhere.

When I covered the Nevada Legislature in 1999, it was common to see a Boy Scout working on his citizenship merit badge come and speak to a legislative committee about an issue important to him. Ordinary folks just wanting to be heard could show up and speak. More important, legislators listened.

Sure, the Nevada Statehouse has plenty of lobbyists trolling the hallways, too. But it was never to the exclusion of the general public.

Like Illinois, in Nevada the capital, Carson City, is quite a ways from the state’s population center. So a facility was set up in Las Vegas that enabled ordinary people to drop by and testify before a committee through video conferencing.

In this age of Skype and other video communications, it would be easy for Illinois to accommodate this type of testimony.

But it hasn’t happened. Why? Because the powers that be don’t care what you think. Even when ordinary people travel to Springfield, they often find themselves brushed aside or patronized.

For example, state Rep. Charles Meier (R-Okawville) was angered this month when a group of small-business people weren’t allowed to testify before the House Small Business Empowerment & Workforce Development Committee.

“This is the first time the committee met this year, and we had about 18 small-business people from across the state wanting to talk about a variety of issues and the chairman tells them he doesn’t have time to hear their testimony,” Meier said. “He allowed six to talk for about 30 seconds each. That’s just not right.”

The chairman of the committee is state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago).

Are things hectic during the final weeks of a legislative session? Yep. Are freshman lawmakers, such as Meier, idealistic? Yep. So what?

Honest, hardworking business owners wanted to appear before a committee and share their concerns, and they were instead told to stay quiet.

“We had an hour or an hour and a half to debate whether eating lion meat should be legal, but we don’t have time to hear what these small-business people have to say?” Meier said.

But what about the big union rallies at the Capitol? Aren’t they an example of “ordinary people” being heard?

Major unions such as the Illinois Education Association or the Service Employees International Union will have “lobby days” where thousands of their members are brought to Springfield. When the members visit their legislators’ offices, they usually get a pat on the back and a “good to hear from you.”

Who is getting lobbied that day? It sure isn’t the lawmakers. Union leaders use these events to bolster their support within the union. The folks being lobbied are the union members themselves.

The real lobbying is done by the professional lobbyists on the unions’ payrolls who dole out campaign cash and work behind the scenes.

It’s just another way that Springfield insiders keep the voice of ordinary people from being heard.

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.



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