Opinion

Berg: Illinois democracy is an empty shell

Austin Berg
Austin Berg

Good news: Springfield is working.

Don’t believe me? How else could you explain the following?

On March 28, an Illinois House committee passed 1,464 bills with unanimous support. In a time of partisan divide, Illinoisans should rejoice at such efficiency, such cooperation, such competence.

But a closer look at these bills shows ... nothing.

Instead of changing education policy, pensions or taxes, these bills are meaningless – every one of them. They delete the word “the” in state statute and replace it with the word “the,” for example.

These more than 1,400 pieces of legislation are called shell bills. And their overwhelming usage is the sign of a legislative body where rules are meaningless; where decisions are made in secret at break-neck speeds.

That’s by design. Deals made in the dark deepen the power of legislative leaders. And rapid decision-making keeps scrutiny from the media and public at bay.

In this case, House Speaker Mike Madigan and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin used shell bills to avoid the March 31 deadline for bills to pass out of committee.

While this might seem like harmless procrastination, what many Illinoisans might not realize is that shell bills are loaded guns. They put residents at risk of laws that would never pass through a measured, deliberative process of open debate.

Madigan passed 936 shell bills. Durkin passed 528. Meanwhile, thousands of substantive bills died without so much as a committee hearing.

In simple terms, shell bills allow lawmakers to forget about the transparency required in the typical legislative process. Shell bills mean nothing until they mean everything. And by then, it’s usually too late for citizens to do anything.

Knowing the nastiness of shell bills requires knowledge of how a bill becomes a law in Illinois. A quick primer:

First, a lawmaker introduces a bill. Let’s say this lawmaker is a state representative, so the bill is introduced in the House. The bill then heads to the House Rules Committee, which is supposed to send the bill to the appropriate committee for a hearing. (If Madigan doesn’t like a bill, this doesn’t happen. But that’s another column.)

House rules require six days’ notice before a bill is heard in committee. This standard transparency measure gives lawmakers and the public time to examine the bill and voice their opinions. But this posting requirement doesn’t apply to amendments. Amendments only need to be posted one hour before a hearing. Remember that.

Once in committee, a bill will receive a hearing and a vote, and maybe an amendment on the way. If committee members approve, the bill heads to the House floor.

The bill then gets a reading on the House floor in front of every state representative. That’s called a “second reading.” Representatives get a chance to suggest amendments during the second reading. If the House votes to approve an amendment, that amendment heads back to committee for debate and a vote.

After second reading, the bill gets a third reading and a vote from the full House. Representatives vote up or down to send the bill to the Senate to go through a similar process.

All of this may seem wonky, and it is. Legislating should be slow. It should be open. It should be difficult.

Shell bills fly in the face of all that.

Simply amend a do-nothing shell bill once it reaches the final stages of approval and the wheels are set in motion. Within hours, lawmakers can effectively introduce a new bill and pass it through the House, Senate and get the governor’s signature. The mere one-hour posting requirement for amendments comes in handy here.

The 2011 tax hikes were a case study in three dangerous aspects of shell bills.

Incredible speed: The tax increase was introduced, passed and signed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn in less than 24 hours. There was no debate.

Massive consequences: The tax hikes took more than $31 billion in extra revenue from Illinoisans with no spending reforms.

Backdoor dealings: Six of 12 lame-duck Democrats who voted for the tax hikes subsequently landed government jobs.

There are plenty of commonsense solutions that could put an end to the shell-bill farce in Illinois.

For example, a simple rule requiring amendments to be related to the scope or intent of the bill as introduced would do the trick. These type of “germaneness” requirements are used in state legislatures of all political stripes across the country, according to a 2000 survey from the National Council on State Legislatures.

Alternatively, instead of 60 minutes, lawmakers could change the amendment posting requirement to six days. This would take away the speed advantage of shell bills.

These fixes are easy. The hard part? Forcing Illinois’ legislative leaders to change a game that’s rigged in their favor.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached atáaberg@illinoispolicy.org.

Loading more