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Closed doors for Illinois senators: bipartisan meeting, or illegal party?

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In a meeting legislators are describing as a first of its kind in the Illinois Senate, Republicans and Democrats got together to hear a presentation on state budgets from the National Conference of State Legislatures. And they didn’t let the public or reporters inside, calling it a “joint caucus" (see the Trib‘s coverage), rather than a session of the Senate. Why is that distinction important? We turn to Article IV, Section 5(c) of the Illinois Constitution, which doesn’t say anything about caucus meetings: Sessions of each house of the General Assembly and meetings of committees, joint committees and legislative commissions shall be open to the public. Sessions and committee meetings of a house may be closed to the public if two-thirds of the members elected to that house determine that the public interest so requires; and meetings of joint committees and legislative commissions may be so closed if two-thirds of the members elected to each house so determine.

Bipartisan defense State Senator Pamela Althoff of McHenry, a Republican who is a member of the NCSL executive committee, says she told Senate leaders “this was an excellent opportunity to have both Democrats and Republicans in the same room together to hear the presentation." She says she did not ask the leaders to keep the meeting closed. But she defends their decision to do so. althoff I asked Althoff if senators at the meeting did end up asking “pointed" questions. She says she had to duck out early for a conference call (she’d already heard the presentation twice before, she says), but the questions she heard “were more questions of clarification about the information was presented, how the data was collected, so I don’t think that necessarily these questions would have been prohibited in an open meeting." Question of legality Donald Craven doesn’t buy the distinction between a “joint caucus" and a session of the Senate. He’s a lawyer who’s worked for the Illinois Press Association, Illinois Broadcasters Association and Illinois News Broadcasters Association. And he says the “joint caucus" argument doesn’t make sense because he says there is no “joint caucus" in the Senate rules (PDF). craven A one-time deal? The spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, Rikeesha Phelon, sent me this comment in an email this afternoon: Since a caucus is neither a legislative session or committee meeting (we were even adjourned), the public meeting and notice requirements of the constitution do not apply. The Senate President is not apologizing for the effort, and he maintains that nothing illegal was done today. However since an honest attempt at creating an environment for bipartisan dialogue is being discussed as something sinister, it is unlikely that it will happen again. And that’s unfortunate.

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