Democratic candidate for Illinois House (19th district)
Responses to our questions
Why do you think it has been so difficult for Springfield to get a balanced budget passed and signed?
The deteriorating financial condition in Illinois and the rising cost of our unfunded pension liabilities makes balancing the budget very difficult, even in the best of times. Unfortunately, under Gov. Rauner, we have had only the worst of times. In a perfect world, the legislature and the Governor would work together to make the difficult decisions necessary to balance the budget. We inevitably would disagree on how much we should cut, or how much we should raise, but that is the nature of those discussions. Since Gov. Rauner took office, we have basically not even had those discussions. He has refused, since day 1, to discuss the math of the budget unless we succumb to the demands of his political agenda.
Most reasonable people would understand that you cannot force a legislator to vote against the needs and wishes of his or her constituency by threatening to hold the budget hostage. Most reasonable people (like former Gov. Thompson and Edgar) would suggest that the damage you would do to the state by not passing a budget and the additional debt that you would incur, would make that a very bad strategy. They might suggest that it would be better to balance the budget and seek compromise and incremental change. Unfortunately, Gov, Rauner did not heed their advice. It is very difficult to pass a budget without the cooperation of the Governor. It is even more difficult without even his participation.
Do you believe the state budget can be balanced going forward without new sources of revenue?
Yes. However this would be with considerable pain and would have a negative long term effect on our finances. Predictions of shrinking revenues and continued increase in required payments to the pension funds will put additional pressure on core spending. Further cuts to K-12 education will move us farther from the equitable funding of education that we have as our goal. We have cut state agencies so much that they cannot accomplish their core missions. We balanced the budget by returning the tax to 4.95% AND making $3 billion in additional cuts. If necessary we can make more, although I believe that will only worsen our financial outlook and not improve it.
What new sources, if any, would you support? Please be specific.
I would support a progressive income tax. When considered as a whole, Illinois has one of the most regressive tax systems in the country, placing the greatest burden of funding our government on those least equipped to pay for it. As such, I am adamantly opposed to the "nickel and dime" taxes and fees (taxes on cell phones, cable bills, utility bills, plastic bags, bottled water, sweetened beverages, etc.). I will only support new revenues that are progressive in nature and that place the burden on those who have benefited the most.
Do you support a constitutional amendment favoring a graduated income tax? Please explain.
Yes. I have been a supporter of graduated income tax rates since taking office in 2013. Last year I filed HB3522. This bill would put in place the same income tax rates as Wisconsin, with a highest rate of 7.65% on income above $250,000 per year. The revenue from this increase would be used to restructure the way that we spend money and deal with our debt as a means of guiding Illinois back towards fiscal stability and making us more competitive with our neighbors.
The bill would immediately dedicate substantially more funding for K-12 education which would help us achieve our goal of equitable education. However, a large portion of that funding would be placed into a fund designed to replace existing local revenues, by requiring that school districts reduce their levy by $1 for every dollar they take out of this fund. This would help relieve the burden on (and lower) local property tax bills and shift funding to state revenues. High property taxes are the biggest cost to businesses in Illinois (far higher than corporate income taxes), so reducing local property taxes will immediately improve the bottom line of every business in Illinois.
The bill also calls for dedicating an additional $1 Billion in pension payments, in order to reduce the burden of our unfunded liability. This would save the state money by improving bond ratings and making it cheaper to borrow money. The bill further calls for a reduction in the state sales tax, which is both regressive in nature and a burden on businesses. This reduction would lower the overall cost of goods and make our border communities more competitive.
Finally, the bill calls for a new investment into human services programs that are proven good investments. During the Rauner administration we have made senseless cuts to programs that are proven to save the state money (teen reach, after school matters, Adult Redeploy, etc.) Cuts to these programs cost the state more in the long run than we save in the short run. This sort of short term thinking is exactly what has led to our financial problems. As such, I intend to increase investment into programming that has proven results in order to better improve the financial condition of Illinois sooner. The sooner our debts are paid and our financial condition improves, the sooner we can responsibly consider decreasing taxes.
Please list five areas where you would cut spending.
The first obligation of government during a financial crisis is to identify waste and make cuts where possible. In the five years I have been in the legislature, we have either flat funded or cut nearly every single item in the budget other than education and we still woefully underfund that. We spend nearly $6 Billion dollars per year less on health care, human services and education than we did in 2002. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We have less employees per capita than nearly every other state and our state agencies are unable to accomplish their core missions. We cannot adequately preserve and maintain state facilities and state lands, which will cost us far more in the future when we the neglect must be corrected.
During the budget impasse, Gov. Rauner made devastating cuts that denied people in need critical services, costing people their lives. We cut programs that provided constructive alternatives and healthy opportunities to at risk youth and now we have a big surge in violent crime. I would argue that the answer is not in further cuts, but rather we should be looking to find the programs that work and that save the state money in the long run and begin reinvesting in those programs.
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?
The Supreme Court has ruled that the legislature cannot make unilateral changes that diminish pension benefits. Since the state cannot relieve itself of this debt, we should be looking for ways to manage the debt that save the state money. I am proposing a bill this year that will allow the state to issue bonds to pay down the pension debt. The state would then be required to make annual payments on the bonds, but since the interest rate on these bonds would be lower than the cost of the interest that accrues on the unfunded liability, the state would save money over the current plan of paying according to an actuarial ramp. Models that have been run by a professional actuary indicate savings to the state would range from $50 to $90 billion dollars over the course of the next 27 years.
Additionally, I am filing a bill that would permit the state pension systems to offer a discounted present cash value buyout of the COLA for Tier 1 retirees and employees. This would be a voluntary option for the employee, If they chose to exercise this option, the employee would give up their Tier 1 COLA (3% compounding) and in exchange would receive the lower Tier 2 COLA (3% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, on a SIMPLE basis). In exchange, the system would calculate the difference in value between these two COLAs and pay the employee an amount equal to 70% of the value.
Finally, I will seek to consolidate downstate police and fire pensions into a single fund. This will allow the funds to be combined for the purposes of leveraging better investments and will cut down on administrative expenses.
Should all new state workers be moved into defined contribution plans?
No. With the budget agreement, and at the request of the Governor, we passed Tier 3 Legislation. Tier 3 creates a hybrid definted benefit/defined contribution retirement plan. The Governor promised that this would save the state at least $500 million annually. After analysis, it appears that we are not likely to get anywhere near that amount of savings. Part of the reason is that the Tier 2 pension changes that were passed in 2010 have provided substantial savings to the state and in many cases there is ZERO COST to the state for providing this pension for an employee. Tier 3 would save the state money by shifting the responsibility of funding the defined contribution for teachers to local school districts. Yet, once the details had been worked out (in bi-partisan discussions) the Republicans in the legislature opposed implementation and so Tier 3 has never actually been implemented. As I was actively a part of the negotiations for Tier 3, I support implementation of this plan, but it would appear that it has fallen victim
What should the governor do to control pension costs during union contract talks? What would you do?
In 2010, Illinois passed Tier 2 pension reform. All employees hired after 1/1/2011 are on a dramatically different pension system with far more austere benefits than employees hired before that date (Tier 1). Tier 2 is so austere, that in some cases, the cost of providing the benefit is NEGATIVE, meaning the employee contributes more than the cost of the pension. This additional contribution winds up being a "subsidy" to the state. The Supreme Court has ruled that the state cannot make changes to the benefits of anyone working and with Tier 2 and potentially Tier 3 saving the state money, there isn't much left to be gained by making pensions an issue of collective bargaining.
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?
While Illinois has seen overall population decline, the Chicago metropolitan area is robust and thriving. The vast majority of the population loss has been in areas in central, southern and western Illinois. The communities in these parts of the state have seen rapid decline due to a number of factors.
The advent of commercial farming has driven small farmers out of business. The loss of manufacturing throughout the midwest has caused job loss. Finally, compounding this decline is that many of these communities were for years propped up by government facilities. Some towns relied on penitentiaries, others on State Universities, and other state facilities. When Illinois began suffering financial difficulty due to increased pension obligations, state agencies faced large cuts, year after year. As an example, the Department of Natural Resources now employs roughly 20% of the staff that it needs to adequately maintain and preserve the state parks and facilities under its care. Those were solid government jobs that were lost and have never been replaced. Additionally, we made the same year over year cuts to social service providers and those cuts also resulted in the loss of jobs.
Without a diverse economy like the one in the Chicagoland area, these downstate communities were unable to provide opportunities for their residents and the decline hastened. This is why Illinois needs to look to find ways to encourage business and manufacturing growth, and reinvest in the public sector as a way stabilizing these communities.
What should Illinois do — via tax policy, spending or other policy means — to keep residents from leaving?
Illinois should institute an income tax with graduated rates that will raise revenue from the wealthiest in our state. We can then use that revenue to lower property taxes and sales taxes to help spur the economy. Lowering the cost of goods will and lowering property taxes on the middle class will spur spending which will drive the economy. We should also use the revenue to pay down our debts as the sooner we are out from under the burden of our debt the sooner we will have room under the budget to reinvest in economic engines like higher education and social programs that pay dividends. Once our financial picture is complete, and our debt payments are under control, Illinois can then lower our income tax rates accordingly, and responsibly.
What should Illinois do to promote job creation?
The first thing Illinois should do is elect a governor who is committed to talking about all the reasons why a business should come to Illinois instead of bragging about how he encourages them to leave. Illinois has unparalleled access to roads, rail, air transit, and water. We have access to plentiful and cheap energy and an educated and accessible workforce. Businesses want to be here. We should make creating a financially and politically stable government our first priority and then our new governor can go out and sell Illinois to businesses and finally provide growth.
Did you support the education funding reform bill that the governor signed in 2017?
I supported the education funding reform component, but I voted against the bill. I was opposed to the private education tax credit portion of the bill. This provision was dropped into the bill without ANY discussion at all and without a single hearing to discuss the ramifications of this provision. We had just doubled the private education tuition tax credit with the budget. I could not see how a state that had just accumulated $16 Billion in unpaid bills and barely passed a budget over the veto of the governor, could so quickly and without any process at all, blow a $75 million dollar hole in that budget.
What, if anything, should the legislature do to help Chicago Public Schools?
We should pass my bill that would provide for an Elected Representative School Board for CPS. CPS has been plagued by many many problems over the course of the last 20 years. However, many of those problems were brought about by decisions that a publicly elected body would have a hard time justifying to voters. The Chicago Teacher's Pension Fund was fully funded. After the Mayor took control of the board, CPS skipped pension payments for a decade and that is not the single biggest financial problem that CPS faces. The hiring and firing of so many questionable heads of CPS (Bennet and Claypool) only happened because the board did not have any accountability to the taxpayers who foot the bill. An elected school board will not solve all of the problems at CPS, but it will finally put the fate and future of CPS into the hands of those responsible for it. The taxpayers.
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 scholarship program, as it pays for the scholarships by allowing the wealthiest corporations and individuals the ability to avoid paying taxes. This tax avoidance directly takes money out of funding for public education at a time when we are already underfunding public education and when we are supposedly attempting to provide equity. The catch is that we cannot provide equity without additional funding and we just gave away $75 million.
I am product of private schools and I am happy to see a scholarship program that allows disadvantaged children the opportunity to attend good schools. However, these scholarships already exist and people already donate to this cause. We just gave them a huge tax break to do what they were already doing. This is the wrong priority for a state that is broke.
Should Illinois do more to regulate campaign fundraising? If so, what?
Yes. We should eliminate the caps on individual donations to candidates, since that only further consolidates the power into the hands of leadership and gives wealthy self funders an advantage over regular middle class people. We should also pass public funding of campaigns to reduce the influence of money in campaigns. Finally, I would support uniform limit on campaign fundraising so that leadership is subject to the same limits as rank and file legislators.
What help, if any, are you receiving from your party and its leaders, including staff help, advice, legal assistance, money and resources? Be specific.
None at this time. I run my own office, pay my staff and do my own fundraising, independent of my party's leadership.
If you are an incumbent, give an example of a time you worked across the aisle on an important issue.
In 2011, I introduced the "Automatic Objection" amendment to the conceal carry bill. This amendment created an automatic objection to an application for a license if the applicant had been arrested 5 or more times in the last 7 years or 3 or more times for gang related crimes, regardless of conviction. This provision helped close the gap between those who favored "Shall Issue" and those who favored "May Issue" concealed carry language. Under Illinois' law, law abiding citizens get their license. Those who have been convicted of crimes are denied. AND, those who have regularly found their way into trouble are pulled out of the line and subjected to a hearing. This provision received the most votes of any provision and was supported widely by both parties. It also immediately helped to deny a license to a well known leader of a Chicago street gang.
In 2016 and 2017, I passed the bill that would provide an Elected Representative School Board for Chicago with more than 100 votes. Despite the fact that this bill only dealt with Chicago, I was able to get more than 45 Republican votes because I took the time to talk to my Republican colleagues, listen to their concerns and address those concerns through amendments to the legislation. One of my proudest moments came during the floor debate on that bill when four of my Republican colleagues took turns standing to praise my stewardship of that bill as a model of how we should work together on all matters.
In 2016 I passed the Unclaimed Life Insurance Benefits Act and in 2017 I passed an amendment which was vetoed by the governor. Again, I took the time to speak at length to my colleagues and was able to override the veto, with broad Republican support. I take great pride in passing all of my legislation in this fashion.
If you are an incumbent, give at least one example of a time you did not vote with your party on a significant issue.
In 2011, I voted against Speaker Madigan's pension reform proposal. At that time, I believed that this proposal was unconstitutional, and I believed that it was wrong to diminish promised pension benefits without including the employees in the negotiations. I also voted against the Scholarship tax credit.
Do you support term limits? If so, will you commit to sponsoring legislation and/or lobbying your colleagues on behalf of a constitutional change?
No. Term limits are the worst idea in a democracy. When we look at our system of elected government, it is clear that we are in bad shape. The vast majority of candidates seeking higher office have no experience whatsoever, but are all very very wealthy. Money buys elections and that is wrong. Incumbency is one of the only weapons that middle class and poor people have against the wealthy. Term limits ends those careers and diminishes that power by forcing a change in office, whether the voters want that change or not.
Once there is no incumbency then wealthy people like Gov. Rauner and his allies can use their wealth to influence the outcome of the next election, and in effect, "buy" that office. That is the last thing we need right now. Incumbent officials lose elections every cycle. The people have the power to the make the change they want. Big brother government should never have the power to force the change upon them.
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?
I support a non partisan mapping process
Tell us a little about your family.
My wife Sharon and I have been married for 6 years and have a 16 month old son.
Tell us something about you that might surprise us.
I play guitar and sign in a rock and roll band. Our band has played various shows throughout the area including the annual "Jeff Fest" where we have donated our pay to The National Veterans' Art Museum