Thursday, February 18, 2010

Is the real secret how little our legislators comprehend government finance?

When I learned (by reading the Chicago Tribune, I must admit) that the Illinois Senate convened at the Statehouse in Springpatch on Wednesday in a session closed to the public, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a similar moment that occurred just over a decade ago.

It was the late 1990s, and I was a Statehouse-based reporter-type person in those days. The “event” was that the Illinois Legislature was becoming technologically advanced. For the first time ever, laptop computers were installed on the desks of each and every legislator, along with all the connections necessary to operate such devices.

I KNOW SOME younger types are going to find it absurd that it ever was NOT like this, but the flow of paper for bills and other documents relevant to Illinois government was essential to keeping things running. This was the beginning of encouraging legislators to call up such information on their laptops, rather than have to have so much paper.

The “similar” moment I am referring to was the specific day when, with all the new equipment installed, it was thought necessary to sit all the legislators down in the chamber and give them a technical display of how everything worked. What was it that the public was truly kept in the dark about concerning the Illinois Senate?

For some legislators who were older or just not inclined to want to use computers at all moments of the day, it amounted to “Computer Science 101.” I remember that particular session was closed off to the public. I even recall the curtains that were put up over the windows up high from which people could look down upon the lawmakers at work.

I remember being told that the reason for the secrecy (I suppose state officials preferred the word “privacy”) was to make the less-computer literate legislators feel more comfortable about learning how to use the device. Some of them might have been embarrassed if their computer illiteracy had been so brutally unveiled.

YES, I COULD easily envision one of the television-types putting together a humorous story about a hometown legislator who keeps blipping crucial government information out of existence because he just can’t get the hang of that blasted laptop.

Now, we have the Illinois Senate behaving in a similar fashion. The Tribune went so far as to use the newspaper’s website to update the story by telling us how their reporter was physically barred from the Senate chamber when he tried to enter Wednesday morning.

The newspaper even included a diatribe from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, who said the session legally could be closed to the public because no actual government business would take place. So long as that fact remains true (no votes on any bills), he probably is legally correct.

As Cullerton told the Tribune, “this is meant to be one where just the senators are there to get information, but where they can also feel they can ask questions and … have a free exchange of ideas without having to be worried about what the press might report.”

SO WHAT WAS the point of Wednesday?

The National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver-based group of government geeks who take particular joy in following the political activity at the 50 state capitols, was to give a presentation about government finances – which anyone who is paying attention realizes are a complete mess in Illinois.

Defenders of the “closed” session contended that since they planned to have the conference’s people talk to reporters later in the day, the information presented ultimately will become public.

But it is a shame they had to take this route, because now the focus will become a question of why couldn’t everybody else find out this financial information at the same time as the 59 senators.

IN FACT, WHEN I re-read Cullerton’s comment, I can’t help but get the sense of déjà vu (not the Springfield-based strip club). Were legislative leaders afraid we’d see, once and for all, just how clueless individual senators were about the state’s financial situation? It could be.

Unless there has been a significant improvement in the education of government officials in the years since I left the Statehouse Scene, the reality is that most of the 177 members of the General Assembly are plugged into their home communities, and usually can discuss the specifics of what a budget offers for their local residents (ie, voters).

But few of those legislators have the time, energy or interest to try to see the big picture. For some of them, the little picture (“pork”) is all that matters. For others, they’re less capable than you or me of understanding that “big” financial picture.

Of course, it also is a consequence of the way in which so much of state Legislature activity is dominated by the four legislative leaders, with the regular legislators only being included at the exact moment when a vote by the whole General Assembly is required.

KEEP THEM IGNORANT long enough, and you create a situation where leadership (although admittedly, this seems to be a directive of the Democratic leaders, with Republicans saying they’re going along in hopes of encouraging “bipartisan” cooperation in the future) has to go to extremes to cover it up.

Which also means the next time you ponder to yourself just how those knuckleheads (or whatever choice phrase you choose to use to describe legislators) could have voted in such a stupid manner on a budget or any issue, keep this “ignorance” factor in mind.

He/she was probably just going with the flow, so to speak.


EDITOR’S NOTE: I must credit the Chicago Tribune for doing the actual work of rooting out ( this story.

No comments: