MILLER: Times have changed in the Illinois Statehouse

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During the last couple weeks of the spring state legislative session, Senate President Don Harmon got whacked twice by allies, including Gov. JB Pritzker, but still managed to keep his cool.

On May 14th, the pro-choice powerhouse group Personal PAC issued a blistering press release blasting the Senate super-majority for an “unacceptable decision” to strip abortion services from the governor’s birth equity bill, which banned co-pays and other added insurance costs for most prenatal and postnatal care. Gov. Pritzker quickly chimed in, saying if the House-approved bill was indeed stripped of abortion coverage, he wouldn’t sign it.

Eleven days later – the day before the Senate took up the state budget package – an internal administration talking points memo was mistakenly sent as a blast text message by a member of Pritzker’s staff to House Democrats. The incendiary blast text was sent shortly after the Senate Democrats, in consultation with the Republicans, amended a House bill reforming the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

The Senate’s bipartisan amendment included requirements like live-streaming PRB hearings, which the Pritzker administration claimed at the time would cost a fortune and, according to the mistakenly texted memo, was actually part of a plan to undermine the state’s Mandatory Supervised Release (MSR) program because hearing officers would be intimidated into not releasing deserving prisoners while being video streamed.

“This is a right-wing wolf in disingenuous transparency clothing,” the administration’s text told HDems. “It eliminates MSR by design. And it’s appalling that senate democrats [sic] are so eager to please their Republican friends that they would undermine justice and push to keep people incarcerated who, by measure of actual law, should be out on MSR.”

There was real fear in the building that the accidental broadside could derail the budget.

Through it all, though, Harmon didn’t overreact. The entire budget package cleared his chamber with far more Democratic support than it received days later in the House. Things could’ve been so much different.

“It did not trouble me in a way it may have in the past,” Harmon told me last week after I asked if he had matured over the years.

The Senate, he pointed out, eventually “passed the birth equity bill, and in the form it was passed.” He later added, “I think there were some misunderstandings that could’ve been resolved by a telephone call.”

And Harmon said of the PRB amendment imbroglio: “We weren’t intending to pick fights. It was a bit of a surprise to me the level of engagement and the way it happened. I’d much rather work with the governor to make this work than to spin our wheels for nothing.” He said he’d be “happy” to have a conversation with the governor to “make sure all voices are heard” going forward.

“In the end, we’re judged by what we produce, not the rough drafts in between,” Harmon said. “The partnership with the governor, responsible budgeting has been a real anchor here for all of us I think. And again, my priorities going into any session are to do the best I can to make sure the members of our caucus have the opportunity to advance legislation that’s important to them, and to make sure we adopt a responsible, balanced budget. So, I try to focus on those things and not worry about the political flame-throwing that just seems to be part of our process.”

Harmon and the governor didn’t start off on the best terms. The two were old allies, but their top staffs just did not mesh well, to say the least.

But, Harmon told me that things started to change toward the end of the 2023 spring session. “I think the challenges we faced in passing the budget last year have solidified the relationship between the Senate staff and the governor’s staff and demonstrated our ability to work well together,” he told me.

Harmon wouldn’t specify what those “challenges” were, but it’s pretty obvious what he meant.

Last year, House Speaker Chris Welch agreed to a budget deal with the other two leaders. An announcement was made, but then Welch got heat from his caucus and needed to find more money for his members. Rather than walk away, Harmon and Pritzker and their staffs worked with Welch to find a solution.

Former House Speaker Michael Madigan wouldn’t have been nearly as accommodating, to say the least. Making accommodations and overlooking attacks just weren’t his thing. Times have indeed changed.

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

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