Elaine Nekritz, of Northbrook, is a Democrat who has represented the 57th District in the Illinois House since 2001. Richard Hamen of Prospect Heights is the Republican challenger. Here are their responses to the Daily Herald questionnaire.
Q. What is your Number 1 campaign issue?
Nekritz: Our highest priority should be to bring integrity to legislative and government processes. I support opening up the legislative process and providing individual members greater authority over their bills. It is critical to allow more opportunity for public scrutiny and input on legislation, including the most significant piece of legislation, the budget. Changing the House and Senate procedural rules would be a significant step forward to accomplishing this goal.
Hamen: Jobs. Illinois families are suffering through one of the worst periods in history of unemployment. While the federal government shares part of the blame the politicians in Springfield did nothing to prepare for this and continue to do nothing to put families back to work. Business and industry continue to flee the state at a record pace with no end in sight. This is because of unhealthy and outright hostile policies that state leaders have enacted that make our neighboring states more desirable for business and industry.
Once an economic powerhouse, Illinois has dropped to the bottom of the barrel. Some of the highest taxes and corruption here in Illinois make it impossible for a recovery. It is a fact that with business come jobs. Until we elect leaders that understand that problem, Illinois families can count on the continued high unemployment that we all suffer today.
When elected I will work to ensure that we are competitive with our neighbors in bringing business, industry, and the jobs back to the 57th district and put families back to work. I will do this by lowering taxes on families as well as business. Lower taxes and incentives will help entice business leaders to once again consider Illinois a destination and will give people the chance at their dream of beginning their own business. Remember, with business come jobs. I will be friendly toward business because I want people to be able to find a job and take care of their families.
Q. What is your Number 2 campaign issue?
Nekritz: We must address our budget crisis. The budget hole for the State is so big that it will take a multipronged approach to address it. First, we must continue pursuing spending cuts. Second, government must reform its service delivery models to become more modern and streamlined. Third, new revenues will be required. Finally, we will need a three year plan to achieve a truly balanced budget. My more detailed budget plan is set forth in the response below.
Hamen: Taxes and fees. I am opposed to any tax or fee increases. In order to be competitive with our neighboring states or tax and fee rates should be in line with theirs. I will go through the list of our neighbors and how they compare to Illinois. What you will find is how out of line Illinois is with states around us. This results in business going elsewhere and taking the jobs with them. With lost revenue from income taxes due to jobs leaving the state our legislators make up the difference by raising taxes and fees.
Our legislators cannot raise taxes and fees fast enough to keep up with state employee salary and benefit demands along with other increases in state programs so we wind up with a deficit. Our legislators have to borrow the money to fulfill obligations that the state has made so we wind up paying bills today while mortgaging the future. It is a viscous game that has been being played by 'The Machine' here in Illinois and Cook County for at least 25 years. The situation has been minimized to a point that nobody blinks at a billion here or a billion there and when groups point out the problem of high taxes and debt they are attacked by special interests and an army of lobbyists and lawyers.
Here is the comparison for municipalities within the 57th District:
Indiana sales tax: 7%
Illinois sales tax: 9.5% (6.25% to state + 1.25% to Cook County + 1% for RTA + 1% for municipality)
Wisconsin sales tax: 5 -- 5.5% (5% to state + .5% to certain counties)
Illinois Sales tax: 9.5% (6.25% to state + 1.25% to Cook County + 1% for RTA + 1% for municipality)
Q. What is your Number 3 campaign issue?
Nekritz: I will continue to focus on flood relief efforts. The Des Plaines River runs through the center of the suburbs I represent and consequently flooding is a constant and, unfortunately, growing threat. The completion of the Levee 37 project in Prospect Heights and Mount Prospect is a top priority. More localized flood relief efforts will involve the state, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Cook County and municipalities. Funding is, of course, important. Equally valuable are efforts to coordinate between all the levels of government that must be involved in the solutions.
Hamen: Education. The education we give our children will tell the future. Our education system in Illinois is broken. Teachers want more. Administrators want more. Parents and children deserve more yet receive less. The fact is that the state of Illinois owes billions to schools and teachers and there is no payment plan in effect. Teachers need the tools to teach and our children need a safe and healthy environment in which to learn.
1: State owes billions to schools which forces the schools to borrow money
2: State owes billions to teacher pension fund and has not made a full payment in 8 years.
3: State is borrowing money to pay its obligations to schools and teacher and then only partial payments are made.
4: Pension reform passed in spring 2010 will wind up costing state billions more due to rising ages of retirement and forcing teachers to work until age 67. This will result in higher salaries during the career and higher pensions during retirement.
5: Our children deserve clean, healthy, and safe schools yet many schools are unable to provide even these essentials due to a lack of funding.
6: Teachers deserve the tools to motivate our children and do the jobs they love so much but many schools are unable to provide these essentials due to a lack of funding.
7. Textbook prices are out of control.
1: Start paying what we owe schools and teachers
2: Reform pensions in a way that makes sense for everyone. I will advocate allowing teachers to retire after 20 years and begin receiving a pension immediately. This will allow teachers to retire younger and begin a second career. This will also open positions for teachers just beginning their teaching career, whether that is straight out of college or as a second career.
3. Begin repairing and rebuilding our schools to match the 21st century. If the money that we do have is spent wisely this would be the easiest of all the solutions.
Q. What should be done to solve the state's budget crisis? What specific measures should be cut for how much in savings? Would you support or oppose an income tax increase or a state sales tax increase? Lay out a specific plan of what needs to be done.
Nekritz: My plan for addressing the budget crisis has four parts. First, we must continue pursuing spending cuts. At the end of the spring 2010 legislative session, I joined with ten other legislators, both Senators and Representatives, to propose over $1.3 billion in spending cuts and savings in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. All of these were presented as amendments to the budget bills. All except one of the amendments were rejected by House committees on a bipartisan basis, although the budget that was adopted included the reductions in state operations and mandated categoricals for education. I was the chief sponsor of $600 million of these cuts.
Our proposed reductions and savings:
*Operations across all state executive agencies (5% reduction)- $300 million
*K-12 Education -- Mandated categoricals (special education)- $200 million
*K-12 Education -- Grants $100 million
*Higher Education $100 million
*Healthcare and Family Services (Medicaid)- $200 million
*Renegotiate and rebid existing multi agency contracts $300 million
*Salaries for part time Boards and Commissions $2.5 million
*Decreased mileage reimbursement for all state employees $6 million
*Subsidy for salaries of local assessors, supervisors and coroners $4 million
*Requiring Retiree health care contributions $100 million
Second, government must reform its service delivery models to become more modern and streamlined. The private sector has been through the process of becoming lean. The not-for-profit sector is doing it. Government, and especially state government, must do likewise.
One tool we can use to make state government more effective and efficient is to utilize the budgeting technique used in Washington State -- "budgeting for outcomes (BFO). BFO requires the State to set priorities, determine the total amount of spending and then ask state agencies and others to submit bids for the programs that will achieve the priorities. The State awards funding to those bidders that will be most effective in meeting the priorities. And when the money runs out, the lower performing programs are simply not funded. BFO will introduce competition into State government and programs and will foster a more informed debate about what is in the budget -- and what is not.
Spending reductions and reforms will not be sufficient, however, to fill our budget hole. New revenues will be required. I supported the income tax increase proposal that came before the House in 2009 because I felt it was disingenuous to pretend that new revenues are unnecessary to close a $6 billion gap in a General Revenue Fund budget of approximately $28 billion. Even if we were to fire every state employee, the savings would not come close to $6 billion. Unless we are to dramatically underfund our pension system and decimate our elementary and secondary education system, the state universities and the safety net that supports seniors, the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill, new revenues will be necessary.
Finally, we will need a three year plan to achieve a truly balanced budget. It took us decades to get into this mess, it will take at least three years to get out of it. In addition, the National Association of State Budget Officers predicts that state revenues will not return to pre-recession levels until Fiscal Year 2012 at the earliest and in many states it will be later. A multi year plan will be critical to a successful resolution to the budget crisis.
Hamen: First thing to be done is audit the books. The problem is not revenue. It is spending. Are we spending too much? Yes. Should we reduce spending? Possibly, but I would rather see that the money that we do spend is invested wisely and without fraud or corruption.
I will oppose any tax or fee increases until it is shown that nothing more can be done. I will work to eliminate duplicative programs and will work to consolidate departments and jobs with similar duties. The state first needs freeze salary's and hiring. The only hiring that should be done is to replace an outgoing employee in a critical position.
Q. What is your view on the pension legislation passed last year? Do you support or oppose lower benefits and higher employee contributions for current state workers? Specifically, how should state officials resolve underfunding problems?
Nekritz: We must pursue multiple strategies to address the problem of unfunded pensions and other post employment benefits. I was proud to have been a leader in the Illinois House in the effort to create a two-tiered pension system for new employees. Illinois now has the highest retirement age in the nation and its other retirement benefits have been severely restricted. According to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the two-tiered pension system will save the State $71 billion over the next 35 years. The savings for the State in Fiscal Year 2011 was approximately $976 million.
The unfortunate reality is that we cannot avoid paying for the sins of the past. The failure of governors and legislators to fully fund our pension system and to plan for paying for the other post employment benefits (OPEB) has created a hole that cannot be ignored. The first thing we must do is have the discipline to find the revenue for and fund the actuarially required contribution for the pension systems. Without that discipline, we will fall further and further behind.
Second, we must require retirees to contribute to the cost of their health care. Currently there are thousands of state retirees under the age of 65 who do not contribute to the cost of their health care. In May, I joined with Representative Karen May in proposing legislation that would have required those retirees to pay a portion of the cost of health care coverage in the same manner as other state employees. Unfortunately, this legislation failed to receive sufficient votes in a House Committee to move forward. I remain committed to moving ahead on this proposal.
I believe there are unresolved legal questions as to whether the pension benefits of current state employees can be modified or reduced. While these actions have been upheld in the private sector, there are significant differences with the state pensions that can affect the legality of such action. The first is that private sector employees do not make any contributions from their salaries toward their defined benefit pension plan. In Illinois, public employees contribute as much as 10% of their paycheck toward the pension plan. Thus participants in the state pension plans have much greater investment and possibly legal rights in their pension.
Most public employees are also covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Labor agreements enjoy special protections under the law that cannot be overridden by legislative action. Again, it is not clear whether the legislature can alter the benefits covered by those agreements. This could be considered analogous to the situation in a corporate bankruptcy where the corporation can legally void all ongoing contracts except collective bargaining agreements.
If the legislature acts to change benefits for current employees, there will undoubtedly be a lawsuit by those employees. If the State loses, our hands will be completely tied and we will be unable to try and reach a compromise on these issues that could help preserve the solvency of the pension plans while reducing the financial obligations of the state.
Hamen: I would have opposed the pension reform that has passed. I agree that something needs to be done. I will sit down with leaders to work out a plan that makes sense for everyone. Some points will include allowing teachers to retire when they choose and begin receiving their pension.
Q. Do you oppose or support civil unions? Gay marriage? What abortion restrictions do you support? What about parental notification? Late-term abortion? Should there be controls on gun ownership? If so, what would you support?
Nekritz: I support state recognition of civil unions. I support the rights and restrictions on abortion set forth in Roe v. Wade. I support consent before a minor can obtain an abortion only if the list of those to whom notice is given extends to trusted family members and advisers. I support the restrictions on late-term abortion set forth in Roe v. Wade. I support a ban on assault weapons similar to the federal ban previously in effect and I oppose attempts to permit the carrying of concealed weapons. However, I would very much like to see legislative efforts move beyond guns and focus on reducing gun violence.
Hamen: I will support civil unions.
I am pro-life. I endorse abstinence for children. I support abortion only in the cases of rape or incest. I will not spend taxpayer money attempting to make abortion illegal but rather invest taxpayer money into programs endorsing responsibility and asking people to weigh their choices carefully.
Felons should not be allowed to own or carry weapons. Proper registration of person and weapon is required.
I support municipalities right to limit firearms but not to abolish them.
Q. Where do you stand on campaign finance caps for legislative leaders and parties? Will you vote for your current caucus leader? Do you support an amendment for a different political map system? Why or why not?
Nekritz: I voted for Senate Bill 1466 to establish campaign contribution limits in Illinois. I also support imposing limits on transfers from legislative leaders to other campaign committees.
To my knowledge, however, there is no data -- either empirical or anecdotal -- which would support the hypothesis that limits on campaign contributions have the desired effect of removing the influence of money in politics. In the almost forty years that campaign contribution limits have been in effect for federal elections, the cost of campaigns and the relentless pursuit of contributions has continually escalated.
Rather than capping the money coming into campaigns, it would be more effective to limit spending. But given the recent United States Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, where the Court held that corporations may spend unlimited amounts on independent campaign expenditures, it is highly unlikely that the Court will overturn the long standing decision that campaign spending is protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
The seventy members of the House Democratic caucus include white, black, Hispanic, city, suburban and downstate legislators. We are pro-choice, pro-life, pro-gun control and strongly pro Second Amendment. We represent strong regional interests. We are as diverse as Illinois and therefore it is an extremely difficult job to keep the group together and working toward any kind of common agenda. Speaker Michael J. Madigan works very hard at listening to our divergent opinions and developing legislation that will meet our various goals.
Whoever serves as Speaker of the House, I support changes to the procedural rules that govern House operations in order to open up the legislative process. The rules give almost exclusive authority over legislation to the Speaker and the Rules Committee. Our rules are among the most onerous in the nation and I would like to see the procedures opened up to give individual members greater autonomy and authority and to provide more opportunity for input by the public. For these reasons, I voted against the House procedural rules in February 2009 (House Resolution 45).
I support a map process that is as fair, open and transparent as possible. The so-called Fair Map Amendment that was considered earlier this year contemplated an "independent commission whose eight members were to be appointed by each of the four legislative leaders. Call me cynical, but I doubt those appointees would have been nonpartisan or independent. Instead, I supported a constitutional amendment that would have given the entire legislature (177 members) the opportunity to draw a map while also providing additional protections for minority voters.
Hamen: I will vote for Tom Cross as House Majority Leader.
I supported the Fair Map Amendment. I believe that the current system is broken and has been used only for political purposes and not in the best interests of the people. One only needs to look at the boundary's of the 57th District to see how broken and ineffective the current system is in representing the people.
Q. Legislation recently passed that exempts the evaluations of all public workers from FOIA. Do you support such an exemption? For a certain class of public employees (e.g. police officers, road workers etc.)? Explain.
Nekritz: This spring, I supported House Bill 5154 that would have exempted public employee evaluations from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. While I believe strongly in the purpose of FOIA, there are times when the public's right to know must be balanced with individual privacy and the ability of units of government to provide candid information to employees in order to improve performance. I thought HB 5154 provided sufficient access to information in personnel files while also giving sufficient flexibility to governments to critique performance without exposing every little character flaw to public scrutiny. I believe we should have additional input on this issue before the legislature takes action on the Governor's amendatory veto.
Hamen: I do not support public employees evaluations being exempt from FOIA. They are public employees that are employed by the public and paid by the public. Transparency of evaluations are required to eliminate fraud and corruption.