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Thursday, July 8, 2004 09:45 pm

Behind closed doors

Slowly but surely, the legislature is being replaced by five guys in a back room.

It's old news that the four legislative leaders and the governor have hijacked the budget process. For years now, the governor, the House speaker, the Senate president, and the two minority leaders have met behind closed doors to hammer out the state's spending plan.

This year, though, the governor and the leaders have grabbed more control than ever. The five men have been privately negotiating everything from the regulation of potluck dinners to the medical-malpractice-insurance crisis. According to the governor, as many as 40 separate bills are being discussed. Many are said to be very important; a few are not.

Here's the problem: All of those bills are being debated, amended, and approved in complete secrecy, without even the slightest bit of public input.

When the leaders and the governor are finished, the bills will be presented to the lowly House and Senate members as a fait accompli. It's doubtful that legislators will be allowed to make any changes, because that could upset the delicate balance of the leaders' final deal.

This all started when the spring session flopped into overtime at the end of May. After May 31, all bills that take effect immediately require a three-fifths vote, which means Republicans finally got some power.

Instead of just demanding input on the budget, the minority party presented a whole host of side issues that had to be resolved first. No deal on their side issues, they said, no budget.

Not to be outdone, the Democrats added their own ideas, and, before anyone outside the room figured out what was going on, the governor and the leaders were running their own private legislative session.

This is not a good thing.

Legislative leaders already have way too much power. They appoint committee chairs, minority spokespersons, and even committee members. Committee staff report directly to the party leaders, not the committee heads. Politically vulnerable members rely on their leaders for campaign cash, staff, and even precinct workers. The speaker and the president have absolute control over whether bills live or die. The leaders have even been known to tell members how many bills they will be allowed to move in a given year.

As recently as 1992, the General Assembly was still a pretty wide-open place. Members had a lot of control over the fate of their own legislation. The rules were geared more toward the rights of the members than toward the power of the leaders.

All of that is gone now. The statehouse has the distinct feel of a prison, and for the past month the inmates have seemed almost redundant.

After the regular session ended, the leaders' budget negotiations went nowhere. A few weeks later, Gov. Rod Blagojevich called the General Assembly into special session in an attempt to jump-start the process. But the members weren't given anything to do. They trudged to the floor for a few minutes, then plodded back to their offices. It's as if they're stage props, trucked in to create the illusion of a real legislature.

If this keeps up, we might as well just elect a speaker, a president, and two minority leaders and send them to Springfield to hash everything out with the governor.

Come to think of it, that's pretty much what we have right now.

The worst part is, Blagojevich has repeatedly promised a more open process. Just weeks ago, he said, "We're not going to do it the old way, where you hide behind closed doors."

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