First reported 2/17/2010 7:42 p.m.
Last Wednesday’s closed meeting of the entire Illinois State Senate raised concerns about secret government deliberations. After reporters were physically barred from the proceedings, representatives from the Illinois Press Association and other media observers decried the meeting as unwarranted secrecy.
Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), an assistant senate majority leader, defended the decision, calling it a bipartisan caucus and dismissing concerns of impropriety.
“It’s clearly constitutional and clearly legal,” Harmon told Wednesday Journal last Wednesday. He acknowledged that there may be political consequences stemming from the decision, but said that concern about any such consequences was “trumped by our effort to be bipartisan.”
Well intended or not, not everyone agreed with the senate’s actions. The Kansas City Star headlined its coverage of the meeting, “Open government, Illinois style.”
Deriding the “bipartisan caucus,” phrasing, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quipped, “‘bipartisan caucus’ of the whole Senate? Um … Isn’t that just another way of saying, ‘a closed meeting of the whole Senate’?”
The Chicago Tribune, which broke the story early on Feb. 17, quoted the Illinois Press Association’s attorney, Don Craven, who insisted that the topic of a meeting is irrelevant.
“The topic is not important,” Craven told The Tribune. “If the Senate can go into a joint caucus to talk about this topic, what’s the logical extreme? Can they also go into a joint caucus to debate the budget bill? Can they go into a joint caucus to debate the hundreds of other bills that go before the state senate?”
Wanted to avoid ‘political posturing’
Harmon said the meeting was closed solely to avoid “political posturing” on the issues of the state’s finances and budget deficit.
“There was virtually no posturing, as we often find in open meetings,” he said, adding: “It remains to be seen what people do in public.”
The senators heard a presentation by the National Conference of State Legislatures on state budgets and the economy. Harmon called this morning’s meeting “very informative.” While, he said, senators asked fewer questions than he expected, the questions were substantive.
“Democrats asked questions about budget cuts, and Republicans asked questions about revenue increases,” he said. “The partisan red meat rhetoric was left at the door.”
Harmon said one thing he and other senators brought out of the meeting was the realization that the state is not in unique circumstances.
“Illinois is not alone. States across the country are grappling with the same problems,” he said.