At a forum in Evanston last night, Illinois legislative candidates sparred over how to create jobs and reduce corruption, but agreed on one thing: that the state needs a massive budget overhaul.
Hosted by the Central Street Neighbors Association at Haven Middle School, the forum included State Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston) and her 18th District Republican challenger, Eric Lieberman, as well as 17th district house candidates Laura Fine (D-Glenview) and Kyle Frank (R-Skokie.) Ninth district Illinois senate candidate Glenn Farkas (R-Glenview), was also in attendance, but his opponent, State Rep. Daniel Biss, had a previously scheduled appearance. Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl took his seat, answering questions on behalf of Biss from position statements he had prepared.
Moderator Jeff Smith, an Evanston attorney, posed questions to the candidates based on a survey of members of the Central Street Neighbor’s Association. Residents’ questions focused on jobs, pension reform, taxes and corruption in state government.
Candidates Differ On Ways to Create Jobs
When it came to job creation, Skokie attorney Kyle Frank said that Illinois’ budget crisis was making businesses afraid the state would raise taxes and driving them out of Illinois. As a first step, he said he would focus on pension and Medicaid reform, praising the state of Wisconsin as a model to emulate.
His opponent, Northfield Township clerk and Northeastern Illinois University professor Laura Fine, also said that balancing the state budget was the place to start. She also said that the government should look into attracting more green businesses.
“If we have more green businesses opening their doors in Illinois, we’re going to have more companies with more sustainable jobs,” said the Glenview resident.
Fellow Glenview resident and financial adviser Glenn Farkas described the state and its budget as “a racehorse with a 300-pound jockey.” To attract jobs, he said Illinois legislators should repeal the corporate income tax.
Mayor Tisdahl said that as a state representative, Biss was already talking about making a tech center in Illinois, and had been working with the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and Northwestern to keep tech businesses in the state.
Like Frank and Fine, Evanston attorney and former Democrat Eric Lieberman said that any efforts at job creation needed to begin with the state budget. Citing the nonpartisan Institute For Truth in Accounting, Lieberman noted that Illinois ranks among the bottom five of all 50 states when it comes to debt.
“Cleaning up our numbers so we know what we’re dealing with is priority No. 1,” he said.
Lieberman’s opponent, fellow Evanston resident and State Rep. Robyn Gabel, said she had co-hosted a meeting with Biss when she was first elected to find out what barriers to success businesses encountered. They identified workers compensation laws as one of the barriers, and Gabel said the legislature has since changed those.
“We cannot cut our way out of this crisis and we cannot tax our way out, we really need to grow our way out,” said the former director of the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition.
Going forward, Gabel said she was focused on bringing advanced manufacturing jobs to the state.
Candidates Agree Pension Reform Is a Must
While all the candidates agreed that the state had to reform its underfunded pension system, they differed on who was to blame and what measures should be taken.
“I feel sorry for the Democratic workers,” said Farkas. “They’ve been screwed over for years, primarily by the Democrat party ... Now we’re sitting here today and they’re crying the blues.”
Farkas said the state should put all new employees on 401(k) style plans, instead of pensions, and freeze or reduce the cost of living adjustments given to public sector employees who have retired.
Tisdahl noted that Biss has served on the House Personnel and Pensions Committee since he was elected. On his website, Biss outlines a cash balance plan for new government employees, a hybrid between the current pension plan and a 401(k). Under his proposal, the state would pool and manage retirement investments by new employees, with a guaranteed minimum benefit.
Lieberman expressed support for Farkas’ 401(k) proposal, while Gabel said that legislators had to ensure that the pension program “will be there for people that need it,” particularly the majority of women who make up the state workforce, many of them teachers.
“I don’t want to see a lot of old poor women in the future,” she said.
Frank said he, too, supported the plan outlined by Farkas, which would shift future employees to a 401(k) style retirement plan, sharing the investment burden between workers and the state. He cautioned, however, that a pension reform plan would likely spur a lawsuit from state workers—and said he would be willing to call a constitutional convention to amend the Illinois Constitution, which states that pension benefits cannot be “diminished or impaired.”
Fine said the state’s pension system needed to change going forward, but said that legislators should protect those who have already retired.
Candidates Repeat “No New Taxes”
Asked whether they would support raising taxes to help fund the state’s growing pension obligations, Fine, Frank, Farkas and Lieberman echoed the same phrase, “no new taxes.” Gabel said “it’s very difficult to look at raising more taxes at this time,” while Biss has told the Chicago Tribune that he would like to phase down personal and corporate income tax rates over the next decade, in accordance with the plan created by the Illinois General Assembly when it increased those tax rates in 2011.
Farkas, on the other hand, said at the forum that the state should repeal the recent tax hike, arguing that it would drive businesses and residents out of Illinois altogether.
Gabel said she supports a graduated income tax, rather than the flat tax currently in effect in Illinois, a position Biss has also campaigned on since his first election two years ago.
Candidates Spar Over Term Limits, Speaker Madigan
Discussion became heated when moderator Jeff Smith asked the candidates to talk about measures they would support to reduce corruption at the state level.
Gabel said she would like to see public fundraising for campaigns and strict limits on fundraising from other sources, including corporations. She also said there should be term limits for legislative leaders, citing a bill she proposed along with Daniel Biss to do just that.
Lieberman praised Gabel’s support for term limits, but said more reforms are necessary, including limits on the amount of political contributions that can be made by the heads of parties. He also asked Gabel why she had voted for State Rep. Michael Madigan as Speaker of the House when he has held that position for most of the last two decades.
“It’s simply wrong to talk about reform and changing things in Springfield without talking about removing Michael Madigan,” Lieberman said. “He has control of this disaster we’re in for so many years.”
Defending her vote, Gabel said there was only one name on the ballot for Speaker of the House at the time. But, she said, “if one of my colleagues was interested in running, I would look at that as an opportunity.”
Reading from Biss’s prepared statements, Tisdahl noted his support for the bill to reduce term limits, along with Gabel, and said that, like Lieberman, Biss wanted to place limits on the amount of money house leaders can contribute to political campaigns.
Farkas, however, criticized his opponent, noting that Madigan group Friends of Michael J. Madigan had made several contributions to Biss’ campaign for state representative two years ago
“When you send somebody to Springfield, you better look at who put the money in their pocket,” he said.
Farkas said he supports term limits for politicians, and suggested a campaign tax on funds raised during an election.
Fine and Frank both said they would like to see term limits at the state level, while Frank also said he would like to see a public funding option for elections.
Like Lieberman, Frank also asked Fine whether she would vote for Madigan if he were on the ballot for Speaker of the House again.
“I have not thought past Nov. 6 because I need to be elected first,” she said. “Let Nov. 6 come, and then we’ll be able to figure it out from there.”
All five candidates who attended Thursday night’s forum, along with Rep. Biss, will appear again at a debate this Sunday, Oct. 21, from 1 to 4:45 p.m. at the Wilmette Village Hall. Hosted by the League of Women Voters, the debate is free and open to the public.