How transparent the Illinois state Legislature is in the era of COVID-19 depends on who you ask.
It’s Sunshine Week, a time for news media to highlight open records laws. In Illinois, taxing bodies and government offices have to comply with open records requests. The Illinois Legislature replies to a narrow list of records requests. Request denials often require a lawsuit to rectify.
“The Freedom of Information Act does not allow the Public Access Counselor to consider any denials originating from the Senate or House of Representatives,” a Senate memo states. “The [challenge to a denial] may be filed in Sangamon County, which is the county where the Senate has its principal office, or in the circuit court for the county where the person denied access resides.”
“Please note the Freedom of Information Act does not require a response to requests that are addressed to individual members of the General Assembly, as the House does not maintain or control records that are in the possession of individual members,” a House memo states.
State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said sometimes the open records laws can be abused for ill intent, but said he’s open to seeing how the state can expand the publics’ ability and open the legislature more to the Freedom of Information Act.
In the era of COVID-19, Butler told WMAY things seem to have been less transparent.
“The access for the media and the public have been really reined in under COVID and I don’t think that’s the way we should operate in the General Assembly,” Butler said.
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, spokesman John Patterson said in a statement the “Senate President is always interested in greater public involvement and transparency.”
“We learned from the Black Caucus reform agenda hearings that the online committee process can serve to expand the audience beyond the normal statehouse corridors and we look forward to finding ways to continue to increase participation in state government and the legislative process,” Patterson said.
The Senate is back for an in-person session this week as it was for two days last week. Anyone wanting in-person access to the Senate Chambers, Senators’ offices or committee rooms must submit a COVID-19 saliva test. While the initial announcement of the negative test requirement had members of the media submitting the test to cover the $30 cost, that requirement was later dropped.
Harmon’s office has yet to provide information how much the first week’s round of tests cost taxpayers.
During a National Press Club forum to open up Sunshine Week Monday, CQ Roll Call writer John Donnelly said he used to be able to call government offices for guidance on where to look for valuable public information.
“I have found unfortunately during the pandemic that making that call no one answers a lot of times because they’re not in the office,” Donnelly said.
The Associated Press’ Global Investigations Editor Ron Nixon said the news organization had to sue to free up information about how the federal government was spending Paycheck Protection Program grants.
“What we’re seeing here is the darkening of government operations and an attempt to keep the public from knowing what’s going on,” Nixon said.
And, it’s not just the news media finding it difficult to get public information, some at the Illinois statehouse are also having problems getting information from executive agencies.
State Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, complained last week without filing a Freedom of Information Act request she couldn’t get information from the Pritzker administration about COVID-19 vaccination schedules in the state’s prisons.
“The place where I know everyone and in fact can get just about any information that I want secretly, why can I not get a copy of which institutions he’s doing on which dates,” Bryant said. “Why is that secret?”
The Department of Corrections said in a statement “for safety and security purposes, IDOC’s vaccination schedule is not being publicly released.”
Another state Senator, Morris Republican Sue Rezin, recently announced she filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Pritzker administration for information related to the COVID-19 outbreak at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home that killed 36 residents in a matter of weeks.