Tom Kacich: Illinois' openness still merits bad grade

Every time I see Illinois getting high marks for open government and disclosure — it happened last week when the Center for Public Integrity gave the state an "A" for campaign disclosure requirements regarding super PACs, nonprofits and other groups — I have to laugh.

Ironically, the CPI press release came the same day a number of reporters, including me, were booted out of a legislative meeting in Springfield, and the day I learned another Freedom of Information Act request I had filed was rejected by a state agency.

Admittedly it's a different kind of disclosure, and Illinois' campaign disclosure laws really are better than they were five years ago. But there are still loopholes in revealing campaign receipts and spending. And as for limitations on campaign funding, this is still the wild West.

But my big gripe, for this week at least, is with our Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act, which aren't as strong as they should be. Here are my highlights from last Thursday:

I attended a meeting of the House Higher Education Appropriations Committee, which according to its schedule was to discuss next year's budget for the University of Illinois and the other public universities in the state.

"Good morning; we are here to do the work of the people of the state of Illinois," a jovial Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, boomed out at the start of the session.

But a minute later he told reporters, lobbyists and others that they were dismissed, that the committee was now a "working group" and that it would meet alone in the room. This was a meeting of elected public officials meeting in a public building, deciding how to spend the public's money on public universities.

But the public was not invited to listen in because the Legislature has exempted itself from the Open Meetings Act.

A few hours later, I received an email from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity saying that my request for copies of correspondence between the state and a corporation seeking subsidies for a proposed fertilizer plant in Tuscola was denied.

Again, this is a public agency spending or at least possibly spending public money to benefit a private corporation, but for now it's none of the public's business what kind of subsidies this corporation — about which little is publicly known — is seeking.

So my advice: when you read these glowing reports about openness in Illinois government, just think about fertilizer.

Obamacare repeal vote

U.S. Reps. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, and John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, joined with 225 other Republicans and two Democrats last Thursday on a motion to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act. It was the 37th time the Republican-dominated House had done so, but the first time for freshman Davis.

No Republicans opposed the motion. The two Democrats voting for it were Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah, and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, both so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats.

Davis spokesman Andrew Flach said the vote "was to reaffirm what we already know, that Obamacare is bad policy and makes an already disastrous budget situation worse.

"Obamacare grows more unpopular with the American public every day, and now the Senate has the opportunity to roll back this legislation so we can have a real national discussion on health care reform."

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said "we understand that the Democratic Senate will not take this up; however, it is important to restate our opposition to this Washington takeover of health care. All the promises the president and his supporters made about this legislation are now falling through."

Shimkus said the legislation contains 21 separate tax increases, and that many companies have said they either will keep employees at part-time status or won't hire additional staff to avoid the cost of the health care program.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hit Davis for his vote.

"Freshmen Republicans like Congressman Davis demanded a pointless vote on repeal for one reason — so that he could abandon middle-class families to side with his leadership in their wasteful effort to put insurance companies back in charge of health care," said Emily Bittner of the DCCC.

Blues blues

Finally, it is with great sadness that I report that one of the best bills in Springfield this spring — HB 966, which would authorize a St. Louis Blues license plate for Illinois motorists — apparently is dying, alone and abandoned.

The measure passed the House in March, 105-7, but hasn't gone anywhere in the apparently Chicago Blackhawks-dominated Senate. The poor bill doesn't even have a sponsor among the 59 senators.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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rsp wrote on May 19, 2013 at 8:05 am

It costs the taxpayers money for them to waste time on things like voting to repeal Obamacare 37 times knowing it isn't going to happen. Instead of working to make it better. Instead of fixing anything else.