Last week, many members of the Illinois State Senate met in an unusual bipartisan caucus to hear an expert presentation from the National Conference of State Legislatures on the national recession and its impact on state budgets. [Harmon: Closed senate session was legal, productive, News, Feb. 24] The presentation was informative and the written outline is available for public review on the Internet. The reaction of the senators in attendance was thoughtful and contemplative.

The caucus, like the usual partisan caucus meetings we conduct several times in a typical session week, was closed to the public and to the press. This has caused a fair bit of controversy and a pointed editorial in last week’s Wednesday Journal. [Sen. Harmon and the meeting, Our Views, Feb. 24] Let me try to respond.

First of all, I apologize. We simply never expected that something so benign, something so well-intended, would be so mischaracterized. We should have anticipated that any unusual meeting, especially a meeting that could be characterized as “secret,” would have been controversial. The caucus was completely legal, completely constitutional, completely consistent with the Open Meetings Act – and a complete public perception disaster. We should have anticipated how this would look to all of us frustrated by the lack of accountability and transparency in state government. We did not.

What were we thinking? We were trying to engender a bipartisan spirit in the face of the epic budget challenges we face. The idea was suggested by rank-and-file Democratic and Republican members of the Senate who work closely with the National Conference of State Legislatures, and was viewed as an opportunity to hear from experts and learn from other states’ experiences. Both Democrats and Republicans organized the caucus, supported the plan and attended the caucus.

The decision to meet in caucus rather than in an open committee was to encourage members to let down their partisan guard, to perhaps ask questions or explore areas that might seem inconsistent with their public posture on an issue. In this regard only, the caucus was a success. Democrats asked pointed questions about cutting spending on popular programs; Republicans asked candid questions about raising taxes. No one played to the cameras, as there were no cameras.

No decisions were made. No plans were hatched. No conspiracies were plotted. I often hear from constituents frustrated by the political bickering and gridlock in Springfield. “Why can’t you all just get in a room and fix these problems?” I’m often asked. Well, we tried; we tried to do something different. Unfortunately, we badly miscalculated the public reaction and we are paying the appropriate price in the press. Notwithstanding the sting, I hope that we will remain willing to try different things to break the gridlock and fix the sordid condition of our politics.

• Don Harmon is an Illinois state senator, 39th District, assistant Senate majority leader and Democratic committeeman who lives in Oak Park.

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