Private meetings prevent public spats in Springfield

Members of the Legislature can hammer things out behind closed doors ahead of public debates because the General Assembly has long exempted itself from the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

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Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch speaks before Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed House Bill 4664, a bill that will further protect reproductive health care providers and patients who are seeking care in Illinois, at 555 W. Monroe in the West Loop, Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

An often bitter, loud and racially divisive debate played out before, during and after last week’s Chicago City Council meeting where members voted to pass a temporary funding package to shelter asylum-seekers.

The debate pitted mostly older Black alderpersons and moderate-to-conservative whites against Latinos and progressives of all stripes. Much of the division also fell along many of the same council battle lines drawn during the recent campaign between Mayor Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas.

I asked Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch how his own Democratic members avoided being dragged into the same sort of public dispute over how to deal with an even bigger issue: finding cost-saving solutions to the massive $1.1 billion projected cost growth for undocumented immigrant health care services.

Welch explained his members were able to work things out behind closed doors during private caucus meetings.

“I think caucuses are very helpful,” Welch said. “We caucus a lot.”

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He added that caucus meetings “give people a safe space to have conversations.”

And while members probably wished the internal debate on the health care issue had happened sooner, Welch said, “I did think it was important that we had that conversation as a caucus, before you take it to the floor. If you had that conversation on the floor first, it can become kind of chaotic and out of control.

“You have to give people spaces to share their voice. And that’s one of the things that I pride myself on, and I think we’ve had difficult conversations this session. We’re going to continue to have difficult conversations.

“When you’re dealing with a diverse group of people, you’re going to have a diverse group of thought. You’ve got to do that in a civil and respectful way. Many times I will stand up in caucus and tell them we’re gonna have a pretty serious discussion today, and I just ask that we do it in a civil and respectful way, and the caucus abides by that. And that’s all I ask.

“And so you can’t duck and dodge issues. You have to hit them head on. And I think we did that several times this session.”

Members of the legislature can hammer things out behind closed doors ahead of public debates because the General Assembly has long exempted itself from the Illinois Open Meetings Act. So, even if large factions of City Council members wanted to caucus together ahead of meetings, they can’t by law.

State law states no meeting can be held if it’s attended by “a majority of a quorum of the members of a public body.” The City Council’s quorum is 26 of its 50 members. Therefore, only groups of 13 or fewer can meet together in private.

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The Illinois House Democrats have 78 of 118 members, but they’re exempt, so they’re all allowed to meet. I’ll leave the judgment of whether that’s good or bad to others, but it was clearly an advantage for Welch’s caucus on the health care issue.

Also, Johnson had broad support among Welch’s membership during the recent campaign while Vallas’ backing was in noticeably short supply. So there wasn’t as much of a built-in conflict going into the House debate as there was on the City Council.

And partisanship can often bind legislators together in times of strife (as it clearly did here), which can’t happen as easily on the officially non-partisan City Council.

Speaking of caucus meetings, I asked Welch if his meetings had improved since state Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, was banned from attending them. Members had complained she disrupted debates, spoke at length on topics to the point where the caucus meetings endlessly dragged on, and personally insulted members and staff.

“Every single caucus meeting after I made the decision, and I stand by that decision, I think those caucuses were full of healthy discussion,” Welch said. “People were open and honest about their opinions on various topics. And I was proud of our caucus and how we carried ourselves this session. I thought those caucus meetings became a lot more productive after I made the decision, and I’m looking forward to seeing that continue to get better.”

Asked if he’d received much internal blowback for his decision, Welch said, “I haven’t seen any blowback.” Welch replaced Flowers on his leadership team late last week with state Rep. Natalie Manley, D-Joliet.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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