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Reeder: Springfield, government silence the voice of ordinary people

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Shortly before World War II, Norman Rockwell painted an image depicting a workingman standing to speak at a government meeting.

Surrounded by men in suits, he stood there in a flannel shirt and a laborer’s jacket with an agenda stuck in it pocket.

The message was clear. We are a nation where the freedom to petition one’s government isn’t limited to a privileged class.

Not so much in Springfield.

Springfield insiders eat ordinary folks for lunch. I’ve seen it time and time again while covering the General Assembly; an ordinary person comes to Springfield to speak and gets brushed aside.

The message is pretty clear: If you want to be heard in this town, hire a lobbyist.

It’s not that way everywhere.

Back when I covered the Nevada Legislature in 1999, it wasn’t uncommon to see a Boy Scout working on his citizenship merit badge come and speak to a legislative committee about an issue important to him. Ordinary folks just wanting to be heard could just show up and speak.

More importantly, legislators listened.

Sure, the Nevada Statehouse has plenty of lobbyists trolling the hallways, too. But it was never to the exclusion of the public.

Like Illinois, the Nevada capital, Carson City, is quite a ways from the state’s population center. So a facility was set up in Las Vegas that enabled ordinary people to drop by and testify before a committee through videoconferencing.

In this age of Skype and other video communications, it would be easy for Illinois to accommodate this type of testimony.

But it hasn’t happened.

Why? Because the powers that be don’t care what you think. Even when ordinary people make trips to Springfield, they often find themselves brushed aside or patronized.

For example, state Rep. Charles Meier, R-Okawville, was angered Friday when a group of small-business people weren’t allowed to testify before the House Small Business Empowerment & Workforce Development Committee.

“This is the first time the committee met this year and we had about 18 small-business people from across the state wanting to talk about a variety of issues, and the chairman tells them he doesn’t have time to hear their testimony,” Meier said. “He allowed six to talk for about 30 seconds each. That’s just not right.”

The chairman of this committee is state Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago.

Are things hectic during the final weeks of session? Yep. Are freshman lawmakers, such as Meier, idealistic? Yep. So what?

Honest, hardworking business owners wanted to appear before a committee and share their concerns, and they were instead told to stay quiet.

“We had an hour or an hour-and-a-half to debate whether eating lion meat should be legal, but we don’t have time to hear what these small-business people have to say? That not right,” Meier said.

But what about the big union rallies at the Capitol? Are they an example of “ordinary people” being heard?

Well, occasionally, groups such as the Illinois Education Association or the Service Employees International Union will have “lobby days” where thousands of their members are brought to Springfield.

And when the members visit their lawmakers’ offices, they usually get a pat on the back and a “good to hear from you.”

Who is getting lobbied that day? It sure isn’t lawmakers. Often when the groups’ members arrive in Springfield, they are unsure who their state representative is or what particular bills they support.

And sometimes members don’t agree with their union’s positions.

Union leaders use these events to bolster their support within the union. The folks being lobbied are the union members themselves.

The real lobbying of lawmakers is done by the lobbyists on the unions’ payrolls who dole out campaign cash and work behind the scenes.

It’s just another way Springfield insiders keep the voice of ordinary people from being heard.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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