One of the functions of the Daily Herald Editorial Board is to host representatives of a wide range of special interests for background about public policy questions. These meetings are invaluable for providing facts and arguments that go into the formation of our editorial positions. But they have a troubling side.
That is, I thought to myself on the ride up the elevator back to my desk following one such meeting this week, the distinct temptation to sympathize with whatever group or individual has just finished talking.
This tendency is a function of having an open mind. We don't welcome these partisans into our offices to debate them. We sit down with them to learn -- to ask tough questions, to be sure, but withal to provide an opportunity for them to express their points of view thoroughly and, we hope, rationally.
But there is a danger. You often have to constantly remind yourself during these discussions and afterward, "This all sounds so reasonable. What will the other side say?"
As a result, you find yourself frequently in a state of suspended judgment, intrigued by the arguments of the moment but eager to rush to the resource books and the opposition to either confirm or challenge them.
Two editorial board meetings in particular sparked this line of thinking for me. The first was our session with Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn to hear him lay out the philosophical and factual underpinnings of his budget proposal for the coming year. The second was a meeting this week with several Republican suburban senators to hear them challenge it.
These meetings produced distinct messages. The governor's, and that of many Democratic leaders, is that he has made significant, difficult spending cuts in the past four years and, despite them, critical public services, especially education, will suffer draconian cutbacks if the state allows the 2011 income tax to sunset next year as it's scheduled to do. The suburban senators', and that of many Republicans statewide, is that spending has not been cut in the ways it could be, and the state's money can be allotted in a way that ensures public services, including education, do not have to be cut at all, let alone be gutted.
It is a vast oversimplification to say that the issue comes down to which side more voters trust. Yes, in large part, the political challenge may be that simple, but the actual solution depends on something more than mere trust. It depends on a willingness to invest some time to understand why to trust one side or other.
Therein lies the duty of the newspaper, and in approaching it from a reporting standpoint, the newspaper shares the challenge faced by both political sides of the argument -- how to present a complicated numerical case in a form that the public is willing to honestly assess. At its most simplistic, that effort results in caricatures like Pension Pythons and Quinnochios. On a more sincere level, it produces stories like last week's reports by State Government Editor Mike Riopell on Quinn's budget approach or his report today on how the GOP senators' approach fits into the education funding debate.
From an editorial board standpoint, we share the challenge in forming an opinion faced by you, if your interest is truly the greatest good for the greatest number -- how to assess a mind-jarring assortment of facts without letting our personal prejudices interfere and without simply falling for the most recent argument we hear. It may not make for particularly comfortable elevator rides, but I hope in the end it can produce more effective democracy.
• Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.