Mary Rita Luecke
Democratic candidate for Illinois House (17th district)
Responses to our questions
Why do you think it has been so difficult for Springfield to get a balanced budget passed and signed?
There are several reasons.
- When Gov. Rauner was a candidate in the general election, he presented himself as a Republican with a moderate social agenda who would bring business sense to Illinois government. He did not disclose his "turn around" agenda until after his election. The principles of his agenda are at odds with the strongly held beliefs of most of the people of the state of Illinois and the Democratic majority in the General Assembly. Yet, Gov. Rauner insisted that the Democratic legislature adhere to his newly revealed value system as part of the budget negotiations.
- Governor-elect Rauner insisted that the previously passed tax increase to 5% expire and revert to 3.75 percent. Without the additional revenue from the previous tax increase, the resultant increase in unpaid bills, the continuing spending from court-orders, and appropriations for schools, there was no way to develop a balanced budget, let alone pass it without Republican votes, which were not forthcoming.
- It's always difficult to pass a budget. The last decades have required sleight-of-hand maneuvers by leadership on both sides of the aisle to get the votes to pass a budget and go home at the end of the session. Tricks like putting off spending into the following fiscal year, sweeping funds from dedicated accounts, or authorizing cuts in spending that would never be implemented solved the immediate problem of passing a "balanced" budget but did nothing to solve the structural deficit that these budgets reflected. With a new governor who had his own agenda, as described above, and who felt empowered to bring the system to a halt, the budget became his tool, rather than a problem to solve to keep government going.
Do you believe the state budget can be balanced going forward without new sources of revenue?
No. I believe we have a structural deficit, which has plagued Illinois for many years. Residents of Illinois generally express little support for the huge program and spending cuts necessary to balance the budget without additional revenue. I've read editorials urging cutting spending but there are rarely any specifics about the extent of program, service, and the fundamental reductions in the role of state government that would be necessary to get to a balanced budget without new revenue. It would be helpful if the Tribune and other publishers held themselves and others accountable for the specific cuts they would support so the public could judge which way they want to go.
What new sources, if any, would you support? Please be specific.
I support moving to a graduated income tax and a constitutional amendment to allow for that tax. I also support, or would consider, the following: expanding the sales tax to some services and to more internet purchases; a financial transaction tax; a coal extraction tax supported by the Sierra Club; and legalization, regulation, and taxation of recreational marijuana for adults. Stabilizing our revenues will allow the state to meet its obligation to finance our public education system, address our infrastructure needs, and provide the services that protect the health and well-being of our citizens.
I recognize that new taxes are not popular. I would urge the new governor and new General Assembly in January 2019 to come together in the spirit of compromise and good will to agree on revenues necessary for the state and its citizens to thrive. A financially stable state is essential for businesses, as well. With business health comes more jobs and financial health of workers who fill them.
Do you support a constitutional amendment favoring a graduated income tax? Please explain.
Yes. One of the questions I hear most frequently from voters is how can we address Illinois' budget deficit. The current administration and past governors have made substantial reductions in state spending. We cannot cut our way out of the current budgetary morass. The Illinois constitution currently restricts the legislature from imposing a graduated income tax. I believe that a graduated income tax, among other tax increases listed above, is necessary to stabilize state revenues. The graduated income tax allows for rates to be set so that working and lower middle-class families could have rates lower than they are today, while those with higher incomes would pay higher rates. This notion of fairness is not universally appreciated. But it is the cornerstone of the federal government's income tax, which consumes a larger share of the taxes we pay and is common in most states in the country, including neighbors on all sides of Illinois.
Unless we can increase and stabilize the revenues without further burdening the middle class and working families, we will not be able to meet the needs of the people and businesses of the State of Illinois and move ourselves toward a brighter future. Illinois' location on Lake Michigan, in the middle of the nation's air and ground transportation hubs offers a huge potential for economic growth. But we have to stabilize our state budget for that potential to be realized. A graduated income tax bringing in several additional billions of dollars a year is a keystone in my plan to bring Illinois out of the quicksand and offer its residents the opportunity to thrive educationally, socially and economically. Without it our potential is being squandered.
Please list five areas where you would cut spending.
As the BGA points out, on a per capita basis, no state government employs fewer people than Illinois. No state picks up a smaller percentage of local education bills. Per patient Medicaid spending is well below national norms. The pile of debt now owed to state administered public pension systems is staggering. We have faced yearly deficits with efforts to trim or eliminate unnecessary services or programs since the early 2000s. So there is not much room to cut more from state operations without fundamentally altering the role state government plays in transportation, criminal justice, health care, social services and protecting children. Moreover, as commitment to enforcing health, occupational and environmental standards wanes in Washington, we might well need more staffing and resources in several state government agencies, such as IEPA, OSHA, DPH.
Here are particular spending areas that can be cut and resources directed to more effective ways of meeting needs. They include:
- Interest paid on state prompt-payment-act debt, by borrowing from professional lenders at lower interest rates rather than must be paid to the state's vendors.
- Pension payments, by re-amortizing the debt using sound actuarial analysis.
- Closing state operated developmental centers, leaving two, one in the north and one in the southern part of the state, with funds redirected to Community Integrated Living Arrangements (CILAs), which provide better outcomes and are more cost-efficient.
- Certain operational costs at Department of Correction facilities related to diminishing census.
- Reducing pension costs by preventing end of career salary spiking and other methods that increase the state obligation.
Since the Illinois Supreme Court's 2015 decision tossing bipartisan pension reform, what can and should the legislature do to control pension costs, if anything?
Illinois courts have made clear that our pension obligations are protected both the Illinois constitution and traditional notions of contract law. The legislature has already addressed the issue of pensions going forward when it adopted Tier II in 2011 and Tier III pension reform for SURS, TRS, and SERS this summer. Tier III offers a hybrid of defined benefit and contribution but both have extremely modest costs compared to the original state pension plan, now known as Tier I.
As for the current pension obligations, the legislature can authorize re-amortization of Illinois' pension debt, although the re-amortization schedule must use sound actuarial analysis. Re-amortization of the debt will allow the state to responsibly meet its pension obligation to its retirees while maintaining the ability to provide other core services. I also support seeking other revenue sources, e.g. a tax on financial transactions, to build the capital base of the pension funds.
Should all new state workers be moved into defined contribution plans?
No. State employees should have an option, as is now available under Tier II and Tier III. There is a popular wave of support for defined contribution plans. But our aging population should remind us to ensure that our older adults, who can no longer earn an income, have an adequate income and resources to live their lives safely and with dignity. This is essential as a moral compass for our society. It is also essential for the next generation, whose members are working themselves, caring for their children and hopefully saving for their own retirement. Adding a major responsibility to also support non-wage-earning parents is not possible in today's economy, where incomes have not increased in decades. Pensions are key to this commitment.
Then the question becomes what is the most efficient and effective way to structure pensions. While defined benefit plans have fallen out of favor in the private sector, they ensure the economic well being of our older adults by guaranteeing an income after retirement. Defined contribution plans are appealing to employers and many employees and should be offered as an option to state employees, as well. But many workers do not feel that they have the ability to intelligently manage the investments into which their contributions would be placed. Overall the costs to independently manage investments on behalf of thousands of employees is less than each of them paying for investment advice and management on their own. And even with the best advice and intention, the money actually available for retirement is dependent on how their investments are valued at the time of retirement, a variable not under the retirees control. Periodic downturns, as we saw in 2008-10, can snatch insolvency from the jaws of financial solvency just based on when they retire.
What should the governor do to control pension costs during union contract talks? What would you do?
This was, in fact, something that I was concerned about during our Board contract talks with our teachers. There is an element of unfairness when one governmental entity is negotiating contract terms for which another governmental entity will end up bearing financial responsibility. The burden for escalating administrator salaries for the purpose of raising their pension benefit now falls on the district. I do not understand why this is an issue now that Tier II and Tier III pension reforms have become law and the courts have declared Tier I off limits for retroactive reductions.
Illinois lost more residents than any other state in 2016 and the trend appears to be holding for 2017. What is the No. 1 reason, in your opinion, for the exodus?
The net loss of state residents is an important issue. To fully understand it and propose helpful solutions we would want to know the major elements in the equation: How many births in Illinois, how many deaths, how many moved in and how many moved out? And how they've shifted over time and how they compare with other states in our region, other large states, and throughout the country. Without knowing those important numbers, If we are just looking at those who move out of the state, I suspect the population decreases are from two groups . Younger people would be leaving for education and jobs; older people to retire to warmer climates and the lure of lower taxes.
From my conversations with older adults and families in my district, older adults who consider leaving for lower taxes are primarily focused on relieving their property tax burden. Talking to them, they are often comparing the high property tax on their 3-5 bedroom home in Skokie or Glenview with a much lower tax in a much smaller condo in Florida. Such savings could be accrued by downsizing in Illinois, but the external, non-tax, quality of life issues for older adults tips in favor of Florida or other sun-belt states.
I am troubled by reports that Illinois students are choosing colleges and universities in other states for their post-secondary education. It is far less likely that they will return to Illinois after graduation when they go elsewhere for college. It is not surprising that students and their families might choose an out-of-state school given the uncertainty from the budget impasse on the funding and teaching quality of our colleges and universities. Students applying to those colleges and universities have to be confident that the college and university will continue to offer a high- quality education until they graduate.
What should Illinois do — via tax policy, spending or other policy means — to keep residents from leaving?
We need to ensure that our state universities are fully funded. The budget impasse of the past two years had a devastating impact on our colleges and universities. I hear parents complain that a growing number of places at our universities are being filled by students from outside the country who pay full tuition. While that is one way to fill a funding gap, it is not optimal. We need to ensure that there are places at all of our colleges and universities for Illinois students who want to attend. When funding is destabilized, students, parents and high school counselors look elsewhere. Illinois already does not tax retirement income. The most effective way to address property taxes is through stabilization of state revenues for the state to be able to pick up a greater share of the cost of educating Illinois' children.
What should Illinois do to promote job creation?
For companies deciding whether to move or expand their business here, the most important thing we can do is to create a stable, predictable financial footing for the state. No more prolonged struggles over budgets and anti-union agendas. As noted in Innovation Illinois, "The best thing Rauner could do to promote jobs is to settle on a budget with the legislature that sustainably funds state services and lowers deficits, setting tax rates that won't yo-yo with every change in administration. There won't be Springfield chaos to scare the job creators." https://innovationillinois.org/blog/2016/12/23/job-growth-not-illinois/
We also need to do a better job of promoting ourselves. As Gov. Rauner pointed out in his report to the bonding agencies for the funds to refinance the debt created by our overdue bills, Illinois is a great place to do business. We are a center of commerce, transportation, tech innovation, higher education, housing, and culture. And, we sit on the largest body of fresh water in the continent. We have a strong educated workforce. All of this is important to attracting businesses to Illinois. It is also important to individuals and businesses currently in the state that are considering starting-up or expanding.
Did you support the education funding reform bill that the governor signed in 2017?
I support the move to an evidence-based formula to address disparate funding of schools throughout the state. And, I support appropriating additional dollars to be distributed to school districts for this purpose. Article X of the Illinois Constitution imposes on the state the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education. Illinois has never met that responsibility. The result has been a patchwork system of schools that relies on the property tax base/political will of the residents of those school districts to pay for the education of their children. This has created a highly inequitable system of public schools in this state with widely divergent ability to properly educate our children.
What, if anything, should the legislature do to help Chicago Public Schools?
To be honest, I don't know. I suspect this question is aimed at what financial help the legislature should give to Chicago Public Schools. I need to do more study to be able to answer this question properly. I would support legislation that provided for an elected school board. While I understand the desire of Chicago mayors to have control over the schools, the Chicago school board has turned a deaf ear to voices from the community when making important decisions that affect those communities. They need to bring stakeholders to the table and not just at the point of making decisions, but throughout the year.
The learning challenges faced by poor children of color in Chicago stem from multiple sources, including violence in their communities, high incarceration rates, lack of employment for their parents, inadequate access to fresh food, and a patchwork of medical care. Many children have direct experience of trauma that affects their ability to concentrate in school. The state should do whatever it can to address the root causes of children's ability to learn and to build supportive services that will help these children break the current cycle of poverty that grips them.
Do you support opportunity scholarships included in the funding reform bill? Or will you try, if elected, to eliminate that program?
I do not support the opportunity scholarships included in the funding reform bill. They create another tax break for wealthy individuals, allowing them to support private, mostly religious, institutions. I believe those scholarships violate the First Amendment requirement of separation of church and state. While it would not be my highest priority, if elected, I would sign onto legislation eliminating the program.
Should Illinois do more to regulate campaign fundraising? If so, what?
Illinois needs to establish a system for publicly financing elections, or at least move to a hybrid system that draws on both public and private funds. The current system substitutes a candidate's fundraising ability for experience and commitment to public service. I am appalled by the amount of money spent on elections, in general. Illinois has a limit on the amount an individual can give to a campaign, but that cap can be lifted if a candidate in a particular race contributes $100,000 or more to his/her own campaign. Illinois also has strict reporting requirements that I support. I would extend mandatory immediate reporting to contributions of $500 or more, now set at $1,000, immediately.
The cost of campaigns is driven in large part by the candidates' challenge of getting their message out to people in their districts and the length of the campaign cycle. To that end, I favor shortening the election cycle — holding primaries in May or June in presidential primary years and in September in non-presidential years. Other countries prohibit campaigning more than six weeks before an election. I would support such a restriction as a reasonable time, place, manner restriction on protected speech.
The status quo advantages people with wealth or access to wealth and people with strong ties to established parties. For that reason, I favor SB 1424, the law proposed by Sen. Daniel Biss, and supported by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, to create a small donor matching fund for political campaigns for state offices. Candidates who agree to participate in the fund would voluntarily agree to accept a limited amount of money from any individual donor in order to receive matching public funds. I support an Illinois referendum calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. However, until Citizens United is overturned or the U.S. Constitution amended, reform of Illinois funding of state elections may be the best we can hope to achieve.
What help, if any, are you receiving from your party and its leaders, including staff help, advice, legal assistance, money and resources? Be specific.
I am not receiving any help or money from the party or its leaders except for the following. Democratic Committeemen in Evanston, New Trier, and Northfield townships have had open meetings allowing me, along with the other candidates in my race, to meet with and address Democrats attending the party events. Rep. Lou Lang made himself available for advice early in the campaign.
If you are an incumbent, give an example of a time you worked across the aisle on an important issue.
If you are an incumbent, give at least one example of a time you did not vote with your party on a significant issue.
Do you support term limits? If so, will you commit to sponsoring legislation and/or lobbying your colleagues on behalf of a constitutional change?
I support term limits for leaders similar to the rule change passed by the Illinois Senate, but I do not support term limits for legislators. Term limits for legislators put too much power in the hands of lobbyists and staff and limit the right of voters to choose their representative.
Do you support changes to the redistricting process? If so, will you commit to sponsoring legislation and/or lobbying your colleagues on behalf of a constitutional change?
Yes. I support the creation of an independent map commission and passage of any amendment required to provide for this. I will commit to sponsoring legislation and lobbying my colleagues on behalf of this constitutional change. The amendment would create an independent commission that would draw legislative boundaries based on Census results. This commission would create representative legislative districts through a process that is fair, impartial and rational. I would want the commission to be authorized to take into consideration the racial and ethnic composition of the district to preserve minority representation in state government.
As the map is currently drawn, state legislative districts incorporate parts of multiple municipalities, townships, and school districts. The 17th legislative district encompasses parts of seven municipalities, four townships and too many school districts to count. It is at least all within one county and one congressional district. That is not true for other districts. There is no rational cohesion to the district. Of course, this is aggravated by the sheer number of local governmental entities, another problem the state should take measures to address.
Tell us a little about your family.
I have been married to Michael Gelder since 1985. We have two daughters: Hannah Gelder, a community organizer with ONE Northside in Chicago; and Moriah Gelder, an environmental engineer with EA Engineering, Science & Technology, in Hunt Valley, MD. I am one of seven children, five of whom are still living. Two died of complications from spinal cord injuries; my younger brother, while in the Peace Corps, within a month of his injury, my older sister sixteen years later. One brother is a Retired Rear Admiral; the other brother was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and was the mayor of South Bend, IN for close to fifteen years. One sister is an editor, the other a dental hygienist.
Tell us something about you that might surprise us.
I delivered my second daughter at home in a planned home-delivery forty minutes after I realized I was in labor and twenty minutes after the doctor arrived, surrounded by my husband, older daughter, and our "mid-dog" Jake. I spent eight weeks during the summer of 1972 on a Jesuit "mission" to Northern Ireland taking Catholic and Protestant children on holiday to get them out of the war-torn cities of Belfast and Derry for a brief respite from the "troubles." Two of the weeks were at Corrymeela, a peace and reconciliation center on Ireland's north shore, where leaders from throughout Ireland, Europe, and the world still come to meet and attempt to heal the fractures of our world.