Tom Kacich: Legislator can't wait to get home, but happy to be in Springfield

As a freshman member of the minority party in the House, Watseka Republican Josh Harms gets among the least choice office spaces of any of the 177 members of the Illinois General Assembly.

Harms' absurdly small office is no more than 10 feet across, overlooks a dreary parking lot, is about as far from the House floor as anyone else's and was looking especially spartan on the day before the scheduled adjournment last week.

"I've already packed up most of my stuff," he said, surveying the virtually empty room, save the two deer heads looking over his desk. "I can't wait to get home. It doesn't matter what time we get out of here Friday, I'm getting in the car and driving home. I told the kids I'd be home Saturday morning."

The desire to get out of Springfield as quickly as possible wasn't unusual; virtually every lawmaker was expressing the same sentiment during the fifth of six consecutive long days either in the Statehouse or in the Stratton Building across the street. But you could understand it especially for a 38-year-old father of two small children at the bottom of the House seniority list.

Still, Harms wasn't displeased with his first five months as a state legislator.

Of the 10 bills he sponsored, four passed both houses and were sent to Gov. Pat Quinn.

"I try not to be a hyper-partisan. You try to work with the Democrats because we are in the minority," Harms said. "But with bills like these, you can get Democrat co-sponsors on them."

Among Harms' bills was one that says that if the owner of a mobile home park knows, based on written knowledge by law enforcement, that a mobile home has been used for the manufacture of methamphetamine that information has to be disclosed to a potential buyer of the home. The legislation was based on the experience of a McLean County man.

"(Freshman Democrat) Marty Moylan (of suburban Des Plaines) was big helping me with the meth bill because he has a lot of trailer parks in his district. He says, 'What do you need? You need me to talk to anyone?' That's how it works here. You can't just come in and say, 'We're going to play this game my way.' That's not how it works.

"You work with people and try to find a solution that everyone can agree to."

On another piece of legislation, Harms in the House and Chicago Democrat Ira Silverstein in the Senate sent to Quinn a bill dealing with parenting rights in cases of joint custody. In a case where one parent needs to leave a child with a substitute child care provider for a significant period, the other parent has a right of first refusal.

"You run into those issues in a divorce where the parent can try to use their kids as wedges, use them as tools," he said. "The bill says that if one parent can't keep the kid during their time, then the other parent has the right of first refusal.

"Someone from my district brought it to me. I sure didn't run on that platform or anything. I'm like, 'This is a great bill.'"

It was tough getting the bill out of committee, he said, and the original language had to be amended.

"But we got language that's good. It's the state giving the court system more opportunities to keep parents and kids together."

For now, as a member of the small GOP minority in the House (outnumbered 71 to 47), Harms has to savor victories like that one. He doesn't get it with some of the big-headline items.

"There are other issues that I definitely don't line up with most of the Democrats on, like concealed carry," he said.

On even the gun bill that passed the House, and was considered infinitely better than a version from the Senate, Harms thought the legislation was too restrictive to gun owners.

"There were too many restrictions on where you can carry," he said.

He wanted one standard for the entire state and fewer exempted locations.

"You can carry in a church, but you can't carry in a preschool. Well, my church is full of kids. What's the difference? My kids' preschool is connected to a church. Does that mean I'm going to carry on the one side but not the other?

"It was definitely a compromise bill. I didn't like it, but there's 118 of us. I'm from a very different district than some of those people in Cook County."

That's for sure. His district of five rural, Republican-dominated counties isn't anything like the city of Chicago, which dominates Springfield politics.

"I have a great district," said the former schoolteacher. "I really enjoy being out in my district. They say that most of the time people elect people who are like them. And I find that when I go out in the district, it's true. They're just really good people. We all think very similar.

"People are concerned about the schools. You hear that people bash the school systems, but on the whole we come from an area where people are happy with their schools and they want to make sure the funding is there. They don't have a problem paying taxes, but they don't want us wasting all their money. I think that's what people view Springfield as: This place where you just keep pouring money into a hole."

Harms said he occasionally finds himself in awe of serving in the Legislature, even with all of its shortcomings.

"I still sit there, when I'm on the floor, and I'm very grateful that people sent me here. Sometimes I'll be outside looking at the Capitol and I'll think, 'Man, I can't believe they sent me here,' " Harms said.

On the other hand, he couldn't wait to get out of there Friday night and to get back to Iroquois County.

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 tkacich@news-gazette.com.

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