When the Illinois Senate meets, it should do so in public. That’s a pretty basic tenet of our legislative process, and is clearly defined in the Illinois Constitution. Somehow, though, the Illinois Senate on Wednesday found a new interpretation. If a gathering of the Senate is labeled as a meeting of its Democratic and Republican caucuses, it need not be open to the public.
When the Illinois Senate meets, it should do so in public.
That’s a pretty basic tenet of our legislative process, and is clearly defined in the Illinois Constitution: “Sessions of each house of the General Assembly and meetings of committees, joint committees and legislative commissions shall be open to the public. Sessions and committee meetings of a house may be closed to the public if two-thirds of the members elected to that house determine that the public interest so requires; and meetings of joint committees and legislative commissions may be so closed if two-thirds of the members elected to each house so determine.”
Somehow, though, the Illinois Senate on Wednesday found a new interpretation. If a gathering of the Senate is labeled as a meeting of its Democratic and Republican caucuses, it need not be open to the public. Party caucuses — in which leaders discuss legislative business with their members — are not required to be open, though until Wednesday they had generally, if not always, met separately.
For about 90 minutes Wednesday, senators gathered behind closed doors to hear a presentation from researchers with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures about state budgets and the national economy. Senate President John Cullerton and Minority Leader Christine Radogno defended closing the meeting, saying that senators would be more comfortable in the discussion if their questions and remarks were not subject to public scrutiny. Cullerton said this applied especially to senators involved in elections.
“Now you’ve got five people in there running for higher office. Two governors, a county board president, a congressman — they want to have their thoughts and comments about this material without them having to worry about what’s going to be reported or looked at in their campaign,” Cullerton told The Daily Herald of Arlington Heights. Given the economic anxiety today, we’d argue that voters have a right to hear their candidates’ interaction with nationally recognized researchers on the economy.
No votes would be taken, no Senate business would be discussed and a press conference by the NCSL would be held immediately after the meeting to inform the public about the presentation, they said. Closing the meeting also would help the Senate’s effort at promoting collegiality among its members on both sides of the aisle.
“I don’t know why they closed it,” said Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, who learned the meeting was not open when he arrived. “It was just an informational meeting. (Closing it) created a lot of suspicions.”
We won't go overboard inferring sinister intentions on this. The nature of the presentation — despite its dire content for states’ finances — appears innocuous. But closing a gathering of the Illinois Senate is a stunning affront to the principle of open government. As open government advocates across the state noted on Wednesday, the double caucus easily could become a convenient venue for lawmakers to operate out of public view.
In some states, which require even party caucuses to conduct business in public, Wednesday’s contention that this was merely a simultaneous gathering of two party caucuses would be invalid. We can only wish that Illinois might one day join their ranks and let the public in on these strategy sessions.
Until then, the Senate and House should stick to public meeting standards as established in the state Constitution.