Creating jobs and addressing the state's budget problems are top issues for the two candidates running for the 31st state Senate seat covering most of northern and parts of central Lake County.
In Daily Herald questionnaires and in interviews, Republican Joe Neal and Democrat Melinda Willen Bush cite needed reforms, including pensions, to help bring the budget in line. But they differ on whether to let a state income tax hike run its course.
They are running to replace Republican state Sen. Suzi Schmidt, who last November decided not to run for re-election because of family issues.
In his first run for public office, Neal, a civil engineer, from Wadsworth, says "Springfield politicians" are chasing jobs out of Illinois and making it too costly for companies to expand or open here. Income tax hikes of 67 percent on individuals and 46 percent on corporations are examples of a "hostile" policy to job creators, he contends.
"We must repeal this tax hike immediately and set to work on a uniform tax policy that provides a level playing field for all businesses regardless of their size," he said.
Both rates are scheduled to roll back on Jan. 1, 2015 -- the personal income tax rate to 3.75 percent and the corporate rate to 5.25 percent. Combined, the income tax hikes were expected to bring in about $8 billion this year.
Neal said the tax is a burden on families and the answer to solving the state's debt problem is to create an "employer friendly" environment competitive with Wisconsin and other areas. Cutting spending on wasteful programs, stronger workers' compensation laws and more Medicaid and pension reforms will help stabilize the budget and reassure businesses, he said.
"Until we bring these programs into line with what our budget can actually afford, we will continue to face more calls for higher taxes and borrowing," he said. A program passed in the last session has huge potential to save money through identification of fraudulent or inappropriate Medicaid payments, he added.
Bush, a Lake County Board member from Grayslake, said eliminating the expected revenue from the taxes combined with the current deficit presents a potent problem.
"I would wait for it to sunset," she said of the tax increases. She added that Medicaid already has been cut and finding additional areas to trim would be difficult.
She advocates a process known as zero-based budgeting.
"If we want to have a serious conversation about cutting spending, we need to look at each program and agency, its relevancy, effectiveness and budget," Bush said. "I believe the most effective way to evaluate these programs is by phasing in what is referred to as 'zero-based budgeting.' This allows us to scrutinize and rebuild a program's budget, starting at zero and justifying its existence and spending at regular intervals."
She also suggested spending could be dramatically reduced by developing a "practical, performance-based evaluation process" for state programs to provide a better target of where to eliminate waste.
Bush said many large businesses don't pay corporate income taxes because of breaks they have already received and it hasn't stopped them from moving. She said she would support incentives to make it more cost effective to hire and manufacture in Illinois. They would have to be performance-based, however, and companies could face penalties if the obligations weren't met, she said.
Neal said he would support an audit of programs and departments to root out redundant services. He also supports a moratorium on new government programs until the financial crisis is solved.
Bush advocated reductions in wages, benefits and pensions for elected officials.
Both advocate pension reform and agree any changes should have a limited impact on current retirees. Both also said they would not take a state pension if elected.
District 31 includes Zion, Round Lake, Round Lake Beach, Gages Lake, Winthrop Harbor, Old Mill Creek, Wadsworth, Lindenhurst, Antioch, Waukegan, Gurnee, Beach Park, Grayslake and Lake Villa.