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Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Another year, another late-May legislative blitz

The General Assembly crammed nearly an entire session worth of work into just a few days, including votes covering billions in appropriations well past sundown on a holiday weekend Saturday.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has made things difficult the last few months, but Illinois lawmakers don’t need a pandemic to fritter away working days.

We need only flip the calendar back 12 months to recall a similar late-May frenzy. Perhaps nothing encapsulates 2019’s dysfunction so well as Senate Bill 125. That measure, the 126-page Reproductive Healthcare Act, was assigned to a subcommittee on March 6, but somehow didn’t make it back onto a rules committee docket until 6:08 p.m. Sunday, May 26.

The Illinois House Appropriations Human Service Committee gave but an hour of notice it intended to take up the hot-button legislation, prompting Dixon’s Tom Demmer, a deputy House Republican floor leader, to speak powerfully about the wanton disregard for public involvement.

“Can you honestly say that’s reasonable public notice of a meeting?” Demmer asked. “Can we reasonably say that somebody who lives in this state, who’s a resident of Illinois, who deserves to have their voice heard can travel here and make their voice heard?”

Unfortunately, Demmer’s declaration was merely another entry in a growing list of legislative lamentations. It could be copied and pasted in any number of sessions. Even in a good year the most important details of key bills tend to be worked out amongst the four legislative leaders (and occasionally the governor, who after all is tasked with signing whatever survives), then get dropped on the rank-and-file lawmakers who have to cast career-defining votes without anything close to enough time to read the statutory language.

Pandemic or not, did we really expect lawmakers to publicly deliberate over the fine details of spending $40 billion in taxpayer funds? Was anyone surprised the Senate was gaveled in after 10 p.m. on a Saturday to hash out gambling legislation that will determine if the state can afford capital construction projects? Is it any wonder the deeply broken unemployment and child protective services systems got hardly any attention in Springfield?

If a library board forgets to give enough public notice of awarding bids to repave the parking lot, its members have to pull the item from the agenda and wait until all the boxes are checked. But the General Assembly — which writes the rules dictating how lower governments can operate — routinely flaunts the very notion of being public servants.

It’s difficult to envision a scenario in which lawmakers rewrite rules to avoid these bill-passing blitzes, but that’s precisely the kind of structural improvement needed to lay the groundwork for an actual reform movement in a badly broken state.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at tsloup@shawmedia.com.

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