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Valeri DeCastris

Democratic candidate for Illinois House (67th district)

Valeri DeCastris

Valeri DeCastris

Democratic candidate for Illinois House (67th district)

B.A. Biological Sciences M.S. Geography and Environmental Resources (with Thesis)
Past Political/Civic Experience

Responses to our questions

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

Unfortunately, civility and bipartisan cooperation has been waning over the past several years in the Illinois legislature. There are competing priorities, declining state revenues, gridlock among the political parties, and during Governor Rauner's time in office, he was not able to forge constructive alliances with Democratic legislative leaders and many legislators. His "turn around agenda" was not embraced by legislators who opined that it addressed narrow social issues, such as employee unions and workplace matters but did not address the operating needs of the state. Legislative leaders and the Governor did not meet for long periods of time and when agreements seemed within reach, Democratic legislators stated that the Governor reneged on them.

The Governor clearly had different priorities than the majority of the legislature and was not able to get legislators to agree with him on a number of issues. There was much frustration and several legislators are retiring from the legislature, likely because of the long budget impasse and their frustration with the legislative process. The needs of Illinois citizens and fairly and adequately funding the state's obligations as first priorities in governance and reaching across party lines and partisan rhetoric seemed to get lost in a battle of wills and disparate social agendas. This was extremely damaging to the state on many levels and its reputation nationally and fiscal integrity were severely tested.

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

No. Illinois' economy and job creation rate are listless and unemployment is too high. Although the country in many areas is recovering or has recovered from the last recession, Illinois lags behind in too many areas. Although it is not politically popular to advocate for higher taxes, clearing more revenue is necessary for this state to thrive. The unfunded public pension liability has resulted in part because of the state's poor revenue policies. There have been declining revenues and tax receipts over the years. Budgeting has not always addressed the state's critical needs and years of incautious budgeting have greatly cost Illinois in many areas. The cost of borrowing money has increased as a result of the recent budget impasses.

The state needs to continue to refinance its debt at lower interest rates and over longer periods. At present, state payments owed to contractors and private-sector entities, many of them not-for-profit human service providers, is costing the state at least 12% per year under the state's Prompt Payment Act. Some refinancing at current lower rates has already happened, but more needs to happen. The multi-year recent budget impasse was very detrimental to the state in that social service agencies closed or were threatening with closure, payments weren't made to providers, the state's bond rating teetered near junk bond status, public universities nearly closed, job growth suffered, business closed, people fled the state and Illinois garnered a national reputation for its budget woes. As a result, vulnerable and needy citizens needed more assistance from the state, exacerbating an already dire situation.

The public engendered ill will over partisan the stalemate in Springfield and the state garnered negative publicity nationally. The Governor was widely criticized, locally and nationally, and the House Speaker was blamed for inaction on the budget and disparaged by some. In short, it is clear that Illinois' revenues must increase to put this state on the road to solid financial footing and to meet its obligations to its citizens.

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

I would consider any and all reasonable new sources of revenue, including a graduated personal income tax, which is not regressive and is fairer than the current tax structure. Illinois has needed a fairer tax system for decades. I recognize that increasing taxes is not politically popular or easy to do. However, with regard to personal income tax, our neighboring states in comparison have income taxes as high as: Iowa 8.98%, Wisconsin 7.65%, Indiana 6.61%, Missouri and Kentucky 6.00%, whereas Illinois is at 4.95%. The modest increase to 4.95% from the previous rate of 3.75% in this year's budget has been criticized by some, despite the higher rates that exist in neighboring states. Allowing the temporary income rate increase to expire over the past few years prior to the passage of this year's budget was catastrophic to many state services and to the state's standing in many areas.

I would explore ideas that have been advanced such as the state expanding its sales tax bases to include other services, such as consumer services. Reportedly, Illinois has the narrowest sales base of the country's states that impose a sales tax. Other ideas that have been discussed are including retirement income in its income tax. I understand that Illinois is one of only a few states in the country that exclude retirement income from income taxes. If this is enacted, it is important that those on fixed incomes or low/middle income senior citizens be protected and the tax phased in, including with regard to higher income citizens.

Tax relief measures should be targeted at lower and middle income households. Closing corporate tax loopholes should also be explored. The state's tax payments should be scrutinized and must demonstrate a public benefit or be eliminated. Additional gaming should be considered and if marijuana is legalized for adults in Illinois, as has been done in many other states, it should be fully taxed and appropriately regulated, if the federal regulatory situation is resolved.

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

Perhaps if necessary. I am generally hesitant to amend the Constitution however and would hope that this tax could be carefully considered on its merits instead.

Please list five areas where you would cut spending.

There are undoubtedly a number of places where spending could be reduced without sacrificing necessary services. A thorough review of state expenditures and operations should be conducted in a fair, scientific and nonpartisan manner by experienced professionals. Reducing spending by refinancing the state's debt at current lower rates must continue and increase. The state has more of revenue than a spending problem. The state's budget shouldn't be held up so that vital services suffer. Investing in education, public safety and social services must not be diminished. Substance abuse and drug addiction must be addressed with treatment, not incarceration. Not only does this make public health sense, it is more cost-effective and humane... The cost of incarcerating a person greatly exceeds the cost of educating them.

The present Governor has focused on state employees and state employee unions as a means to reduce the cost of government. However, cutting spending by focusing on state employees and their union is counterproductive and not cost-effective. Illinois already has a relatively lean government and low per capita public employee numbers as compared with other states due to previous cuts. The state has reduced its workforce substantially over the past decades and despite the current administration's claims, they are not the country's highest paid workers. Illinois is a relatively high wage state. A state university study ranked it 10th in private sector wages and 9th in state employee pay. State workers in Illinois make less that other Midwestern states, such as Iowa and Minnesota and earn less in total compensation than average California and New York state employees.

As regards their health care costs, Illinois is in line with other states in premium contributions and health plan value. A national study revealed that average premium contributions by state employers are 84%, whereas in Illinois, it is 83%. Governor Rauner has proposed that state of Illinois employees pay 40% of their health care costs, which would move Illinois from about the middle to the fifth worst health plan benefits nationally.

The Rauner administration has proposed reducing public pensions, but the Illinois Constitution includes a strong prohibition against the diminishment of benefits that are granted to a pensioner. Newly-hired Illinois workers already are offered alternatives to the traditional pensions that once existed. Illinois has a debt service and tax policy problem that must be addressed and its budgets must not be balanced so as to adversely affect our schools, public safety, vulnerable populations, public employees or social services and other critical functions of government. Cutting spending on core state services to make pension debt payments would have to be drastic and is unrealistic. A repayment schedule that makes healthy, legally enforced contributions to the pensions must be restructured so that it is affordable and allows the state to maintain critical government services. The state must fund its obligations and must be assessed favorably by bond rating agencies as having made real progress toward solving its fiscal problems and adequately funding critical government services into the future.

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 has the largest pension burden in the country and unfunded liabilities in their largest public funds increased a whopping 675% over the past twenty years or so. Studies have attributed the growth in this debt to insufficient employer contributions and poor investment returns and forecasting, combined with poor demographic and actuarial trends. In an attempt to adequately fund public pensions, the state borrowed money against pension contributions to fund services. While perhaps this was an admirable attempt at meeting its pension obligations, taxpayers were burdened with debt from the unfunded liabilities. However, other public pension systems have avoided Illinois' pension payment problems.

For decades in Illinois, gubernatorial administrations and legislatures have failed to adequately allocate enough money for the pensions promised to most state and university employees and teachers. As a result of this failure, spending on pensions is nearly 23% of the personal income taxes in the state, which many taxpayers resent. However, the state's Constitution prohibits the diminution or impairment of granted pension benefits. In the 2015 case, the court held that the Illinois pension law required that benefits promised to public employees had to be paid and that the funding of the state's share of the employees' pensions was the responsibility of the legislature. It also held that the pension problem was one of the legislature's making. The court faulted the legislature for allowing the 2011 temporary income tax hike, which raised the tax 1.25 percent to 5 percent to expire. Before this tax rate was discontinued, it funded the state's obligation to the pension fund. Allowing it to sunset cost the state billions of dollars in yearly revenues.

Illinois is currently in a 40-year pension amortization program adopted before the turn of the last century with bi-partisan support, but the General Assembly has repeatedly failed to meet its "continuing appropriation" requirements by granting itself "pension holidays" as part of their budget implementation bills. This has to stop. It has been suggested that the state must also amortize the unfunded liability into flat annual payments. New state employees have been offered alternative pension benefit plans already and reportedly, attempts in other states to transition employees to private retirement plans have resulted in reduced retirement investment income, sometimes up to a 50 percent. Adequately funding pensions, refinancing and restructuring debt and increasing state revenues, as opposed to controlling pension costs seems more prudent and realistic in Illinois.

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

Not necessarily and the proposal may not pass Constitutional muster.

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

In Illinois, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), through its state chapter Council 31 is the union that represents many public service workers in the public, private and non-profit sectors. This includes about 100,000 active and retired workers comprised in part of around 40,000 state employees in 50 departments, boards, commissions and authorities under the Governor. Under their traditional pension system, taxpayers contribute about 26 cents for every pension benefit dollar. The system is efficiently managed by professionals with reasonable overhead and costs.

Private retirement accounts have been suggested by the present gubernatorial administration as a means to reduce costs. However, reportedly in some states in which this has been attempted, returns on the pensioners' investment was lower than in traditional systems, sometimes resulting in a 50 per cent reduction in returns. The bulk of Illinois' public pensions are funded by investments income and employee contributions. Unlike most corporate pensions, most state and local workers in Illinois are required to contribute regularly to their pensions. State of Illinois employees receive relatively modest pensions for their public service, based on a four-year average of their previous ten years of employment. The median annual pension for state and university employees is under $30,000 a year. The median pension for downstate teachers is a little over $50,000 per year and they do not receive social security benefits, as is the case with some university employee retirees. The courts have ruled that Illinois public pensions cannot be diminished or impaired once granted.

Unfortunately, despite years of difficult negotiation, the Governor discontinued talks with AFSCME and refused to further consider its bargaining proposals. These proposals included a four-year wage freeze, increased employee payments for health care, and the status quo for salary schedules, vacation benefits and work hours. AFSCME contended that these proposals would not increase costs for the state. The Governor and his administration representatives should return to productive talks with AFSCME and reach compromise that is fair to all parties.

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?

Job growth in other parts of the country that are more attractive (for many reasons) to live in than Illinois.

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

There is much speculation as to the causes of this exodus. However, it is clear that the recent state budget impasse, partisanship and gridlock, coupled with the largest unfunded pension liability adversely effects Illinois' reputation. As a result of budget woes, social service agencies closed or threatened closure, the state's bond rating teetered near junk bond status, some public universities nearly closed, job growth suffered, businesses closed, and Illinois was in the national press which undoubtedly daunted and daunts potential newcomers and current citizens. Because of the funding shortfalls caused by various reasons, vulnerable and needy citizens have required even more state assistance. It was widely reported that Illinois college students fled to nearby border states (and were recruited to them) for fear of losing or not obtaining grants for their education.

The past few years' cessation of the temporary modest income tax had disastrous results for the state, prompting criticism even from some fiscal conservatives. State services and its standing were put in great peril as a result of insufficient funds for critical government functions and the political situation among lawmakers and the Governor. Public ill will over partisan bickering and the failure of the elected officials to craft a timely budget for several years harmed (perhaps irreparably) the state on multiple levels. The state garnered much negative publicity from various entities and the Governor was widely criticized for his failure to effectively govern and the House Speaker was blamed for years of state problems. A toxic environment in which to govern, lead and attract people to Illinois ensued that was not conducive to attracting and retaining residents.

Illinois, again, has a revenue problem. Tax increases are not popular among elected officials or the public and political considerations factor into tax and other policy matters. I would advocate for a graduated progressive personal income tax. As previously stated, Illinois' income tax is much lower than even nearby states. The last state budget lifted the expiration on the temporary small income tax increase and was critical to the success of the state. I would look at proposals such as expanding the sales tax base to include consumer services or phasing in a retirement income tax (with relief for low income or fixed income seniors). Reportedly, Illinois is one of only 3 states that do not tax retirement income. Corporate tax loopholes should be scrutinized and closed, but the business climate and cost of doing business and navigating hurdles in business must be improved.

The Chicago Public School system is often in the news with regard to its funding and the public school system was not fairly funded. Property taxes in some areas are too high and job creation has been woefully stagnant. Bold job creation and retention strategies must be explored, and tax payments examined to assure that they provide public benefits and retained only if so.

What should Illinois do to promote job creation?

Illinois has a large department that is charged with job creation and retention, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Chambers of Commerce and business development organizations and incubator centers also aid in job creation. Municipalities also generally have economic development programs. However, nearby states spending per capita, for the most part is reportedly higher than Illinois. Past per capita spending reports were $7990 in Wisconsin, $7030 in Iowa, $6964 in Kentucky, $6528 in Minnesota, $5364 in Michigan, and $4437 in Indiana, the only nearby state that spends less that Illinois at $4947.

Unfortunately, the state was not able to replace the hundreds of thousands of jobs in lost during the last recession, and current trends are not hopeful. The large state deficit worsens the state's economy. Small businesses create the bulk of jobs in the country. Local businesses circulate money throughout the local economy. Larger businesses can move local dollars to other states, and even countries. The state must support entrepreneurship and remove hurdles to business without sacrificing important common-sense regulations. Public/private partnerships should be encouraged and increased. Tax policies should be examined so as to provide some type of support to small businesses and start-ups. The state's business climate and cost of doing business must be improved and business owners assisted with onerous hurdles. Appropriate incentives and tax credits should be utilized so as to attract and retain business.

Additional gaming and new sources of revenue (as previously described herein) should be explored. Closing corporate loopholes, as appropriate should be explored as a revenue source as well. Illinois' economy is under-performing and unemployment is unacceptably high, particularly with regard to states that have better recovered from the last recession. The state's manufacturing base has eroded and the exodus of these jobs has been catastrophic for some communities. While cutting spending has been suggested by some policymakers, some respected economists caution that private sector jobs could suffer as a result. If spending cuts are achieved by reducing the public sector workforce, less money would circulate throughout the local economy from a reduction in consumer spending, which makes up the preponderance of economic activity.

Illinois needs to create jobs to keep pace with growth in its labor force. However, the state's economic performance has for some time lagged seriously behind other states. Reportedly, Illinois has been one of the lowest taxed and spending states for years, and it doesn't seem possible to grow its private sector economy or solve its fiscal problems without looking to at least moderately increasing taxes. I realize that his is a politically unpopular stance and is in part why this hasn't been done until the last budget modest tax increase. However, whatever Illinois has been doing heretofore is not working to ignite its economic engine and drastic approaches need to be scrutinized and if appropriate, implemented. I will not be afraid to look at all proposals to create job growth in this state so as to make this state attractive to business and residents again.

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


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

Not living in Chicago, I do not know much about its schools except for what I read in the press, which generally unfortunately is unfavorable. Cut any waste that can be identified and institute an elected school board and invest more in students and maintain and repair buildings.

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

Probably not if it funnels money away from schools and/or undercuts staff. I would not necessarily try to eliminate it, as I need much more information on this to make an informed decision.

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

Yes, I support public financing of campaigns and open primaries.

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. I met once with a Democratic party official in Springfield like all candidates for this office did.

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?


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. Yes.

Tell us a little about your family.

I have been married for 19 years to a man I met in Springfield while he was in graduate school at the University of Illinois. We moved to my hometown and ancestral home in 1995 in Rockford and have both been very active in revitalizing Rockford.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us.

My parents were both professional artists and I have never pursued a career in the arts. My father, named Valentino DeCastris (stage name Val Eddy) played music professionally 5-7 nights a week for nearly 70 years and was with one piano player for almost 50 years. He had no other job. Val was called by a Quad City newspaper "the second best tenor banjo player in the world" - despite the string bass being his main instrument. He also played mandolin and led bands and was a vocalist. The child of immigrants from Rockford's Sister City of Ferentino, Italy, he repaired a broken mandolin his godmother gave him, as the family was too poor during the Depression to afford an instrument. Living next door to the Giorgi family (where the late State Representative E.J. "Zeke" Giorgi grew up), Val sat in rapt attention as the patriarch Gabriel Giorgi played the mandolin on his back porch. Dad lost his father at a young age and his mother didn't speak English, drive or work outside the home. Despite touring nationally, he always looked out for his mother.

Thankfully, our predominantly Italian American neighborhood of South Rockford contained many relatives and was full of love and life with true community. My family has lived on the same street there for five generations and is where I currently live in my grandparents home built in 1923. They nearly lost this home several times during the Depression. As the Val Eddy Trio, my father, pianist Homer Carlson and guitarits Dave Pitts (LaMond) had a live TV music show in Rockford in TV's early years. The Trio performed at several well-known Chicago clubs like Mister Kelly's, the Cloister and the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Dave Pitts went on to become a studio musician with WGN Radio on the Noon Show and worked with Orion Samuelson.

My mother's family was part of the great migration from the south, having been in Louisiana for generations after immigrating from Sicily. The family moved to Chicago and Rockford for industrial jobs. My mother taught multiple types of dance at Arthur Murray Studios in Rockford and was a florist and interior designer. She was "on the road" with my father while he performed across the country and highly supported his career.

My artistic talent lies in my ability to write and I have a great passion for social justice and for community service. I am a scientist with talents also in social service. I have been active as a volunteer throughout the state and have garnered a National Make a Difference Day Award, the Spirit of Caring Award from Rockford's Crusader Clinics and several local awards. I served on several non-profit boards including the Citizens Utility Board for 19 years. I have been instrumental in the revitalization of south Rockford and downtown and lead a neighborhood organization. I initiated several successful projects in Rockford, including its Italian Sister City and have been appointed by mayors and state officials to boards throughout Illinois.

Candidates for Illinois House (67th district)