By Andrew Thomason Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD — Freshmen lawmakers in the Illinois legislature found the House's bipartisan climate one that encouraged and valued their participation in the budget process, while they felt shut out of budget talks in the more partisan and divisive Senate.
State Sen. Suzi Schmidt, R-Lake Villa, said that as a freshman and a minority in the Senate, she expected her voice might not be heard. She and most of her GOP colleagues said they voted against the Senate budget, approved this past week, because their $5 billion in additional cuts from Gov. Pat Quinn's budget weren’t incorporated into the spending plan.
“This is what I heard was going to happen. I was hoping for a little more openness,” Schmidt said. “I ran a big county, triple-A bond rated, balanced budget, don’t owe any money. I have a lot of experience in budgeting and cutting budgets and balancing budgets. I would just like an opportunity to be able to give some input on that.”
Fellow GOP Senate freshman Sam McCann, R-Carlinville, agreed with Schmidt, saying he and his party should have been more involved in crafting the Senate’s version of the budget.
“I’m not here to cast dispersions or anything like that. I guess I was under the assumption as a freshman — maybe as a freshman I was wrongly under the assumption — that we were all working on this together. I thought that we were still going to come to the table together and join our collective ideas,” McCann said.
The one Democratic freshman senator, Steven Landek, from Bridgeview, declined to be interviewed.
However, Republican and Democratic freshmen say their ideas and concerns were considered as the state's House drafted its version of the budget.
“A very, very rewarding experience,” is how state Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, described working on the Human Services Appropriations Committee. Hays said the committee members worked together to create a human services budget.
On the other side of the aisle from Hays, state Rep. Michelle Mussman, D-Schaumburg, also is on the Human Services Appropriations Committee. Mussman said their budget had broad support, because everyone pulled together and worked toward a common goal.
“This is what I think most of the public wants us to be doing. We had extremely meaty and bipartisan discussions about actual line items and what they did and why they were there and whether or not we felt they were appropriate and tried to figure out the best way to put the money where it was needed,” Mussman said.
Robert Rich, director of the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said the difference between the chambers wasn’t so much the freshmen, but the leaders. Because state House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and state Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, formed some sort of alliance on the budget, members avoided most of the pitfalls partisan bickering usually creates. The same wasn’t true in the state Senate, he said.
In addition, the budget generally has been decided in meetings between four legislative leaders and the governor for the past several years. With legislative redistricting taking place, rank-and-file legislators were asked to be more involved in the budget process this time. This new involvement allowed the freshmen to have a hand in developing the budget.
Another reason freshmen were more involved in the budgeting process this year, in both chambers, was due to the issues involved in getting them elected. Unlike previous years where elections were won and lost based on social issues, the election that brought in the new class was centered on finances.
A confluence of line-item budgeting and a fiscally concerned freshman class created an environment where their voices would be at least heard, Rich said.