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?
The number one reason for the population exodus is lack of economic opportunity. Illinois has one of the best systems of higher education in the nation, but many young people who come to Illinois to get educated leave our state because of a lack of opportunity to stay, start a career, and raise a family. I am not originally from Illinois.
I came to Illinois because I wanted to get involved in the anti-hunger movement. I got my start working in the food industry at ADM in downstate Illinois. There was opportunity to expand my career and stay in the state. That's what has been missing from Illinois for years and why we need new leadership.
The best thing a governor can do is show employers and the people of Illinois that the state has a new direction and that Illinois will take seriously its fiscal challenges. We must show that Illinois will invest in K-12 education, higher education, and economic development in new and meaningful ways.
Most importantly, Illinois' Governor must provide a sense of optimism about our state and its future. For decades, Illinois' Governors have engaged in political infighting and in certain cases have been a national embarrassment to our state. That needs to end if we are ever to put our state on the right track. We need a governor who will make us proud, will lead us in a new direction, and will promote optimism about the state's future.
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?
The most important way to improve our economic climate for employers and businesses is to instill fiscal stability. For the last four years, we have lived under constant uncertainty about the state's budget. That must end. We must enact real reform and make difficult decisions to get our finances under control. We can no longer have a permanent cycle of budget crisis, not pay our bills, or put off reasonable, fair tax reform.
There is no more crippling effort for business in Illinois than the stain of permanent fiscal disaster. When a company like Amazon seeks a location to open a second headquarters, it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that should be pursued. But the reality is, tax incentives are not a strategy to rebuild an economy.
The very factors that will attract and retain companies are the strength and credibility of our finances, our political climate, and most importantly, our public sector. Illinois is the fifth largest economy in the country and it is well positioned for economic growth because we offer companies a skilled workforce, great schools and universities, a competitive geographic location, a strong transit system, and access to consumers.
There is a place in Illinois' economy for tax incentives to attract businesses to Illinois but they have to include critical guardrails such as transparency, accountability, and a proven record of return on investment. The predominant example of a tax incentive program in Illinois is the Economic Development for a Growing Economy (EDGE) tax credit program, which was recently reinstated with some reforms. EDGE has the potential to be an effective economic development tool for the state but it has not been optimized because we haven't adopted formal and transparent evaluations of the program. We need to charge an entity like the Illinois' Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability with conducting such evaluations and pair those evaluations with open-door legislative sessions to review and share the findings.
In addition, all income tax credits, exemptions, and deductions with a sunset clause should require a regular review of the program in order to be considered for renewal. Armed with evaluative studies, we should propose ways in which Illinois can maximize EDGE, particularly the ways in which the program can serve Illinois communities with the greatest need for economic growth. I support reforming our current tax structure to increase revenue and make our system fairer and more progressive.
Where do you stand on a graduated income tax?
I support a progressive income tax. The problem we face is constitutionally it would take years to enact progressive rates for our income tax. We need to enact that reform, including using tax credits and deductions to more quickly make our income tax a fairer and more progressive model.
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.
I would veto any budget that is out of balance, that does not fund our pensions, and that relies on short-term gimmicks and non-structural changes.
First, I would appoint a bipartisan commission to find savings inside of state government. Illinois has not had a truly non-partisan effort to reduce costs inside of state government. We need that effort.
Second, I would seek to find savings inside our Medicaid program that does not impact services to Medicaid beneficiaries.
Third, I would reduce the amount spent on elected officials including eliminating unnecessary offices. Fourth, I would reduce the number of state agencies through merging agencies and eliminating unnecessary boards and commissions
Can Illinois balance its budget without RAISING taxes?
What do you propose as a solution to the state's $130 billion unfunded pension liability?
For decades, politicians in Springfield have not lived up to their obligation to teachers and state employees by funding the pension plan. The employees and teachers are not to blame for our pension problems, they paid into the plan. So to scapegoat those hardworking employees for Illinois' pension crisis is entirely unfair and constitutionally, unfeasible. Illinois must fulfill our pension obligations. The state must pay its annual obligations every year. There are four steps we have to take. Infuse the pension system with an upfront investment either through refinancing our debt, tax reform, or both; stretch out our repayment timeline; lower our payments to a manageable size so we aren't creating more debt or being a deadbeat when it comes to paying down our debt, and then, most importantly, never taking another pension holiday again. There's no way around it. Increasing our debt payments does nothing to solve our pension crisis. As Governor, I will not sign any budget that defers any pension payment and I will be a good faith partner to our unions in working toward possible structural reforms. We need to collectively bargain with representative unions about our rate of return as well as restructuring our debt payments to make them more affordable over time.
What if anything should state government do to address rising property taxes?
The state government should restructure our state tax system to be less reliant on property taxes to fund our local school systems, and we need to make our assessment process and data transparent. The reason our property taxes continue to rise is because we have locked ourselves into a system where political insiders benefit from the status quo. We need to break up the racket that makes local taxpayers foot the bill for political insiders, and the well-connected few who benefit from a broken property tax system.
Do you support or oppose banning elected officials from serving as property tax lawyers?
I support banning elected officials from serving as property tax lawyers. I am the first Democratic candidate to make such a proposal and believe it is absolutely necessary to end the property tax racket in Illinois.
What changes, if any, should be applied to Cook County's property tax system?
The biggest problem that protects us from exposing and addressing our broken property tax system is that no one knows the specifics about how the assessments are estimated. But we do know this system is broken because we can look at data like assessments v. sale prices and estimate the property tax data that should be generated from a residence or commercial property. Not to mention that your publication has exposed through a million-point data study that there is a clear discrimination in the estimated value between homes in low-income and wealthy communities, that the overwhelming majority of residential appeals are granted, and that the value of commercial properties have been estimated erroneously or without change in value repeatedly.
We need to file under evaluation complaints on a significant sample of large-scale commercial properties to identify additional data on missing revenue and reveal the outcome to the public. We need a transparent, public repository that outlines the assessment process and the results it produces across communities and various type of properties. And we need to ban property tax appeals lawyers from also serving as influential members in Illinois government because we know, without a doubt, that there is a clear and detrimental conflict of interest happening here.
Have you ever appealed property taxes on any property you own? If so, what was the outcome?
Yes, I have appealed my property taxes on my home where I was over assessed compared to my neighbors. I ended up paying more in property taxes even after the appeal was completed. As the head of the Merchandise Mart and the Wolf Point development, I had a fiduciary duty to appeal assessments on those properties to obtain the fairest tax rate for those properties.
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?
I do not support that program as it diverts money away from public schools that are badly underfunded. I believe we should shift our school funding formula to one that is based on an income tax rather than a property tax while still accounting for funding based on need. I would divert those dollars back into the public school system.
What is your position on charter schools?
I am support a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools as it diverts money away from traditional public education. Our priority should be to improve the charter and traditional schools we already have then fix our public education funding.
Do you support an elected school board in Chicago? Please explain your answer.
I support an elected school board that is responsive to needs of the community. CPS is the only district without an elected school board. An elected school board will be independent of the mayor and his agenda and instill greater trust in the public when it comes to local public education policy and decision-making.
Tell us about your family.
There is plenty that is known about my family. One of the aspects of my family that I think many find most fascinating is many Americans find in our family much of what they find in their own. The Kennedys are a big family, and when you have a big family, your world expands. You have an enormous number of experiences, each bringing its own, unique insight, expanding our minds and opening our hearts. There are baptisms and graduations, weddings and divorces. There are babies being born, and uncles and aunts being laid to rest, fun events and parties, alcoholism and drug abuse, academic honors and calls from the principal's office, wins and victories, drugs and death, promotions at work and job loss, exciting beginnings, gunshots and terminal illness, and always more fun and love than all of those challenges combined. Much of my beliefs about government and public office come from family. My mother, aunts, uncles and my father lived the tradition of seeking and serving the public out of a belief in serving the public good. That belief in serving the public good is further grounded in our belief in family. I think the people of Illinois need to believe that our government is working to serve everyone no matter where they live, and believe that we see ourselves as part of one big family. That's what I want to bring to Illinois.
Tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.
I am avid biker and often bike from my home in suburban Chicago to work at the Merchandise Mart. I find great healing power in nature, so much so that on a challenging day just a couple of weeks ago, I walked home from Merchandise Mart all the way to Kenilworth in single-digit weather.
Give us an example of a time you worked across the aisle or against your party on an issue.
When I was chair of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, I hired Jim Reilly to be the President of the Bureau. Jim had been Governor Edgar's chief of staff and, despite the fact that he was a republican, I knew there was no one who knew more about the development of McCormick Place and how to drive success there than Jim. We worked together with Governor Edgar and President Emil Jones to increase funding for McCormick Place.
Where have you shown independence from your party?
In this election, I launched my campaign with a commitment to more honest, fairer government by fixing our broken property tax system. By standing up to my own party on the issue of property taxes, I have shown independence from my party.