Democratic candidate for Governor
Responses to our questions
Illinois lost more residents than any other state in 2016, according to U.S. Census data, and the trend appears to be continuing for 2017. What do you believe is the No. 1 reason for the exodus? What do you believe a governor can do to reverse the pattern?
Deindustrialization, globalization and automation have hurt Illinois, and Downstate has not been able to transform its economy the way the Chicago area has. Manufacturing output continues to be strong in Illinois, but manufacturing employment has declined substantially in this century. Go to any factory that has been in existence for 50 or 60 years that's still making the same product, and you'll see the parking lot is one-third full. This is due to automation.
Clearly, we have lost jobs to Mexico, China and other places with lower wages, and I do not want to see Illinois compete on the basis of low wages. The reality is that over time, businesses come and go. They go for reasons that usually have more to do with causes inherent to their business than anything else, but government can play a role in attracting new business. I don't blame Illinois' tax structure; it's not out of line with other locales. Illinois does have comparatively high costs for worker compensation insurance.
I think one problem that scares away potential investors in Illinois is our political unwillingness to address our debts. Those debts don't have to go away for Illinois to be an attractive business destination, but we have to embark on a sensible program for paying them off, so that businesses can see what the costs are and evaluate accordingly. But disinvesting in our state — letting our transportation systems crumble, letting our state universities slide into mediocrity — will not make Illinois attractive to business. Once we are on a path to solvency, we will have to advertise that to the business community, because Illinois has assets, including an educated and ready workforce and a strong transportation network that should make the state desirable.
If elected, what specific policy changes would you enact to improve the economic climate of Illinois? Please outline your position on the use of tax incentives and give-backs to attract businesses to Illinois? Do you support the expansion of existing taxes (sales, income, gasoline) or the enactment of new taxes to increase state revenue?
A substantial increase in the minimum wage. Wealthy people and corporations do not create jobs. Demand for products and services does. If people have money, businesses — even low-wage businesses, such as fast food and big box stores — will thrive. There's also a psychological benefit: People who work don't want to be on LINK, Section 8 and Medicaid. They want to pay their expenses with the wages from their jobs.
If we require a living wage, they'll be able to do that. I'm for tax incentives, but any incentive must result in jobs for Illinois residents. A tax break should be revocable if employment and payroll targets are not met.
Sales tax: I'm against extending sales tax to services. I am in favor of the county school facilities sales tax, which allows counties to levy a sales tax of 1 percentage point for school construction; 47 counties in Illinois do this. Income tax: See below.
Gasoline tax: I'm for a construction program for roads, transit and other public needs of at least $30 billion. I haven't decided how to pay for it, though the motor fuel tax is a possibility. It's 19 cents per gallon for gas (21 cents for diesel), and it hasn't changed since 1993. That 19 cents, if adjusted for inflation, would be 33 cents today. Note as well that people are driving just as much as they did 25 years ago, but they are using less fuel, so the road needs are still there, but the tax revenue isn't keeping up. Another possibility is a vehicle miles traveled tax, which is intriguing academically and probably fairer, but would be difficult to implement.
Where do you stand on a graduated income tax?
I'm for it. In Illinois, the overall burden of state and local taxes falls disproportionately on lower-income households. Illinois has the fifth-most regressive state and local tax structure in the nation, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (https://itep.org/whopays/#). In Illinois, the poorest 20 percent pay 13.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The middle 60 percent pay 10.9 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The wealthiest 1 percent pay 4.6 of their income in state and local taxes. Illinois does not, in effect, have a flat tax. When you include sales tax, motor fuel taxes, taxes on tobacco and alcohol along with property tax and local taxes, such as the late and not lamented Cook County soda tax, we have a system that heavily taxes the poor, while leaving the wealthy relatively unscathed. My proposal is for an income tax structure as follows: Income up to $24,999 - 1 percent; Income from $25,000 to $44,999 - 2.25 percent; Income from $45,000 to $149,999 - 3.75 percent; Income from $150,000 to $999,999 - 4.95 percent; Income over $1 million - 6 percen. I would also include retirement income as part of a taxpayer's taxable income. A graduated income tax, of course, requires a constitutional amendment. It won't be easy to achieve, but it's an idea that's generally popular, and I will fight for it as a priority, whereas other candidates for governor might not.
The next governor will face significant challenges balancing the state budget. If the legislature sends an unbalanced budget, what will you do? If the budget requires cutting, where would you cut? Please be specific.
Illinois' budget hasn't been genuinely balanced for decades. I am not going to engage in the publicity stunt of banging the desk and demanding a balanced budget. If we have a budget that improves the state's financial condition and sets us on an irreversible course to addressing our problems, I will sign it. I will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I would cut the office of secretary of education, funded at $250,000. It duplicates the work of our state superintendent, the state Board of Education and the regional superintendents. As governor, I will evaluate administrative appointments as to whether they duplicate jobs that somebody else is doing. In the big picture, though, everyone wants the state to cut spending, but public opinion research from Southern Illinois University tells us that the only popular area to cut is "waste." Unfortunately, "waste" is not a line-item in the state budget. We should always be looking to improve efficiency, but government is not a factory. Government has to be able to respond to crises; is it "waste" to have firemen and paramedics on the clock when there's no emergency? Everything the state does is important to somebody, and many of the state's activities produce economic benefit. I know the Chicago Tribune editorial board doesn't want to hear it, but government spending is good for the economy. Politically, a governor can make a big show out of cutting or eliminating small programs and creating societal pain, but the cost savings are nickels and dimes. The real state spending — "the billions" — is in debt service, aid to local school districts, pensions and Medicaid. Should we — can we? — tell bondholders, pension system members, school districts and poor people on Medicaid that we're not going to pay? We can't, for reasons both legal and moral, and anybody who knows anything about running a government knows this.
Can Illinois balance its budget without RAISING taxes?
No. Not if we intend to pay our unpaid bills and service our bonded indebtedness, satisfy our pension obligations, provide aid to local school districts, resume funding state universities, maintain and operate our transportation systems, provide for public safety and take care of our less-fortunate citizens. Legislators and governors in decades past have ignored some of these responsibilities. Ignoring them doesn't make them go away. The debts are still there. They are ours. We have a duty to pay them off, and that costs money. However, my graduated income tax proposal — while it is, all told, a revenue increase — shifts some of the state's tax burden away from working-class residents, and onto those for whom our economic system works very well.
What do you propose as a solution to the state's $130 billion unfunded pension liability?
We didn't get into this pension chasm in one year, and we won't get out in one year. Illinois enacted a law that took effect with new members of the state pension systems in 2011. It raised the retirement age, required greater contributions from employees, capped the level of income that is pensionable at $100,000 (indexed for inflation) and, in the case of Downstate and suburban teachers, pushed the vesting threshold from five years to 10.
Whether or not we consider these policies fair, they are now the law, and they will reduce pension costs over time. However, we have many teachers and state employees who started work before 2011 who are retired now or who will retire over the next several decades. We are on the hook for what we promised them until they are deceased. There is no way to shirk this obligation, nor should there be. We simply have to make our actuarially-required pension payments every year — a responsibility we abdicated many times in the past, which created this problem. As these so-called Tier I employees push through and eventually dwindle, our costs will diminish.
As governor, I will make sure any legislation affecting pensions is fiscally sound and does not raise our costs.
What if anything should state government do to address rising property taxes?
We have exemptions for homeowners, senior citizens, veterans. I'd like to see a moratorium on new exemptions, because they push the tax burden to other property owners. I'm not against keeping existing exemptions. Tax increment financing (TIF) districts should be limited to "blighted" areas that would not see new development but for the TIF program. Enterprise zones should not be extended once they reach the end of their time period. We should close loopholes that cause properties to be under-assessed.
Do you support or oppose banning elected officials from serving as property tax lawyers?
Oppose. You're looking at a broad proscription to solve the anomaly of the relationship between the House speaker and the Cook County assessor. As you may be aware, former Gov. Pat Quinn was a property tax lawyer, but he represented regular homeowners who were appealing their assessments for a fee of a few hundred dollars. Should he have been banned from public office? In the case of state legislators, that is a job that is, strictly speaking, part-time. Stipulating that the current situation involving the speaker and the Cook County assessor is as problematic as the Chicago Tribune has reported, such a ban would be tantamount to using a nuclear missile to swat flies. There has to be a way to solve this particular problem without banning otherwise well-intentioned people from serving in public office.
What changes, if any, should be applied to Cook County's property tax system?
It's up to the voters of Cook County to elect an assessor in whom they have confidence. It's unseemly for a candidate for governor from Downstate to nose into a local issue like this.
Have you ever appealed property taxes on any property you own? If so, what was the outcome?
Lawmakers passed, and Gov. Bruce Rauner signed, a school funding bill in 2017 that included a scholarship tax credit program, which offers a tax credit in exchange for scholarship donations to private schools. Do you support this program? If yes, how will you support its growth? If no, will you dismantle the program?
No, I do not support this program, and yes, I would dismantle it. We cannot afford it. This provision was snuck into school funding legislation when lawmakers were in a must-pass bind. School funding was jeopardized. There were concerns about school districts being able to make payroll. If the scholarship tax credit program is examined on its own merits, it's an economic and educational disaster.
What is your position on charter schools?
Opposed. All public funds should go to improve public education.
Do you support an elected school board in Chicago? Please explain your answer.
Yes. The rest of the state has elected school boards. Some are better than others, and I don't expect an elected school board to be the solution to any and all of the challenges that the Chicago Public Schools face, but the voters of Chicago should have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else in Illinois. These should be non-partisan elections.
Tell us about your family.
I'm a fourth-generation Madison County resident, married to Karen for 25 years. We have two sons in college at SIU-Edwardsville. My father was an accountant and a farmer, my mother worked in retail sales at P.N. Hirsch in Highland. I'm the youngest of four children. My three older sisters all were involved in education, two as teachers and one as the business manager of a school district.
Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.
I'm the owner of a centennial farm — that's a farm that's been in the family for 100 years or more.
Give us an example of a time you worked across the aisle or against your party on an issue.
When I was a county board member, I worked to get Republican votes on infrastructure and business development efforts. Sometimes we needed the votes for a supermajority, and sometimes we simply wanted the measure to pass with bipartisan votes.
Where have you shown independence from your party?
I was not endorsed by the Democratic county chairmen. People look at me as a more progressive, independent Democrat.