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EDITORIAL BOARD QUESTIONNAIRES

Ram Villivalam

Democratic candidate for Illinois Senate (8th district)

Ram Villivalam

Ram Villivalam

Democratic candidate for Illinois Senate (8th district)

Education
The George Washington University, BA in Political Science Lincoln Park High School
Occupation
Legislative Coordinator, SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana (2015-2017) President & Board of Director, Indo-American Democratic Organization (IADO) (2012-present) Board of Director, Gun Violence Prevention PAC (GPAC) (2014-present)
Home
Chicago
Past Political/Civic Experience
None.

Responses to our questions

Why do you think it has been so difficult for Springfield to get a balanced budget passed and signed?

The reasoning is relatively simple - Springfield has become a hyper partisan environment where neither party is willing to make tough decisions. The reality is that everyone in Springfield privately admitted that we needed more revenue, but no one was willing to actually take the hard vote to make that happen. Everyone looks at the next election and how they can either protect themselves or punish their opponents. This has led to bad policy making and bad budgeting from both sides of the aisle. The passage of the tax increase and balanced budget this past summer was an important step towards reaching financial stability, but the state still has a large hole it must dig its way out of.

Do you believe the state budget can be balanced going forward without new sources of revenue?

No, I do not think that the state budget can be balanced going without new sources of revenue. The fact is that - even after this past summer's tax increase - we have a nearly $9 billion backlog of unpaid bills and unfunded pension liabilities of over $120 billion. We must make hard decisions that include new revenues.

What new sources, if any, would you support? Please be specific.

I support a graduated income tax, closing corporate loopholes, and a financial transaction tax to raise more necessary revenue.

Do you support a constitutional amendment favoring a graduated income tax? Please explain.

Yes, I support a constitutional amendment favoring a graduated income tax. Illinois has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country, which has been extremely damaging to working families in this state. However, this is not solely because of the state's income tax structure, it is also related to high sales tax, fees, etc. We need to have a system where those who have more, pay more, and those that have less, pay less.

Please list five areas where you would cut spending.

I do not believe that the appropriate approach is "where should we cut." The question should be how can we best provide the services that, we as a state (and legislature), have decided are important to provide. With that said, I do believe that we have opportunities to run a more efficient government. We can and should start with (1) rebalancing our long-term care system - we are over reliant on nursing home and institutional care when we could be providing similar services at much less expense in home and community based settings. We also should be: (2) investing in programs like supportive housing in order to prevent homelessness and more costly services that follow; (3) reducing our prison population through smart and effective criminal justice reforms; (4) getting rid of tax credits for corporations that ship jobs oversees; and (5) providing more community based mental health services so that we can avoid institutionalization and imprisonment.

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?

First, I am opposed to any reductions in pension benefits. Stabilizing the pension funds simply cannot be done on the backs of teachers, nurses, state employees that have been promised a level of benefits that they deserve. Second, we must change the way that we collect revenue - as mentioned a few times above, we need to aggressively pursue real and progressive revenue streams, and we must have laws in place with strong requirements for the state and the city to make required pension payments. I am open to the idea of changing the "ramp" for the state pension system, thereby leveling out the state pension payments over a longer period of time. But the most obvious answer is that we need more revenue - through progressive tax structures - to make these payments.

Should all new state workers be moved into defined contribution plans?

No.

What should the governor do to control pension costs during union contract talks? What would you do?

The governor should negotiate a fair contract that doesn't attempt to balance the budget on the backs of state workers. Because pension obligations are defined in statute, the governor has limited control on what he can accomplish regarding pension costs at the collective bargaining table.

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?

Illinois's ongoing budget crisis is the No. 1 reason that Illinois has lost more residents than any other state in 2016. It has created real problems and Illinois residents have responded in kind. The general assembly's willingness to finally pass a balanced budget helps put the state on a path towards stability. The state of Illinois has been a fiscal mess for years, but it has been made significantly worse over the last three years. If you were a college student, would you choose to go to college in Illinois when Governor Rauner has continually cut higher education funding?

What should Illinois do — via tax policy, spending or other policy means — to keep residents from leaving?

Illinois should continue to invest in itself. As aforementioned, we need to reform our tax code by instituting a graduated income tax structure and eliminating corporate loopholes. We need to invest in working families by increasing the minimum wage, providing the opportunity for folks to earn paid sick leave, and move forward on other policies that will improve their standard of living and incentive them to stay in Illinois.

We have elite higher education institutions in Illinois, and we must continue to keep them at elite levels. We have Chicago, one of the best cities in the world, which has been seeing substantial economic growth in recent years. We must make sure that we continue to invest and protect the strides that have been made. But we also need to be a state that people want to stay in and people want to come to. We are already seeing that Chicago is this, but we need to make sure that the rest of the state is the same.

What should Illinois do to promote job creation?

We need to show businesses that they can believe in what Illinois is, and what Illinois can and will be. Business owners care about many things: stability and certainty, demand for their service/products, high quality workforce, strong infrastructure, and reasonable tax levels. The areas where Illinois has lagged over the last few years have been stability and certainty, which has created real upheaval for Illinois businesses. As such, in order to promote job creation, we need to pass budgets in a timely manner, reform our tax code, invest in our infrastructure, and fully fund on higher education system.

Did you support the education funding reform bill that the governor signed in 2017?

I strongly support the new education funding formula. The new evidenced based formula has key elements that make sure that schools with low income students, English learners, etc. receive more necessary funding; the system moves our state towards funding education more equitably.

What, if anything, should the legislature do to help Chicago Public Schools?

The increased money that CPS is receiving is absolutely necessary for the fiscal health of CPS. However, I strongly disagree with the new back door voucher scheme that is tied to the formula, and believe that it is both unconstitutional and a serious threat to public school funding now and in the future. I believe the legislature should eliminate that component of the new funding structure. Additionally, the legislature should pass legislation that creates an elected school board so CPS is steered from within the community.

Do you support opportunity scholarships included in the funding reform bill? Or will you try, if elected, to eliminate that program?

I am opposed to the "opportunity scholarships" in the school funding reform bill. It is a backdoor voucher program that creates both constitutional and policy problems. Illinois has a school-funding crisis - the state is massively underfunding its public schools and failing to meet its constitutional obligations. The scholarship program does nothing to address this challenge, rather it redirects money that could, and should, be used for public schools.

Should Illinois do more to regulate campaign fundraising? If so, what?

Yes. Our campaign finance system is broken. It is very difficult for anyone but the extremely wealthy to run for office. This is simply unacceptable. We need to end the loophole that allows unlimited money to flow from PACs to PACs. We need a small donor matching program that allows non-millionaire/billionaire candidates to compete against big money.

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 getting help from the Democratic party or its leaders.

If you are an incumbent, give an example of a time you worked across the aisle on an important issue.

N/A

If you are an incumbent, give at least one example of a time you did not vote with your party on a significant issue.

N/A

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 generally do not support the underlying principle of legislative term limits. We have State Representative elections every two years, and State Senate elections at least every four years. Voters continually have the opportunity to choose who represents them and we should continue to give them that opportunity. Installing term limits would hurt the General Assembly. Some of the best representatives in Springfield have been in Springfield for years, and some of the worst have been there for a term. And the opposite is true as well - new legislators are among the best and long-term legislators are among the worst. Further, research on terms limits has shown that they place greater power in the hands of unelected staff and special interest lobbyists.

I strongly believe that our focus should be on making it easier for people to vote. The more people we have participating in our political process, the more legislators will feel pressure to actually represent the voters of their districts, not the special interests.

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 changes to the redistricting process. I would sponsor legislation and lobby my colleagues on behalf of a constitutional change to redistricting if and only if it protects minority representation and meets all requirements of the Voting Rights Act.

Tell us a little about your family.

My wife and I live in the Mayfair community of Chicago. I grew up in Chicago and went to public schools. As a child of immigrants, I recognize that my aspirations are attainable because my parents came to the U.S. and dreamed of a better life. They left their family and professional careers in India to come to America in the 1970s with next to nothing in their pockets. They worked minimum wage jobs, went to school again, and were both public servants for more than 25 years. My parents provided a better quality of life and opportunity for their three children by believing in and living the American Dream. I have carried on the values my parents taught me of working hard and helping others.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us.

My parents highly valued education and were determined to make sure I received the best education I possibly could. During my elementary school education years, the three gifted programs on the north side of Chicago were not accepting more students. As such, my parents sought out and I enrolled in the only other elementary school gifted program, Beasley Academic Center. For reference, we lived on the northwest side of Chicago and Beasley Academic Center is at 5000 S. State St. on the south side of Chicago. Every morning, my parents and I would leave our house at 5:30 AM and come home at approximately 5:30 PM due to the commute. I have always appreciated this experience as it made me aware of and understand the challenges of a community that was completely different from the one I lived in. Because of this experience and my life as well as work experiences since, I will always value the importance of education, take a wholistic approach to tackling the challenges we face as a state, support equitable education funding, criminal justice reform, and support other progressive social and economic justice policies that impact everyone, directly or indirectly.

Candidates for Illinois Senate (8th district)

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