Keith Wheeler: Candidate profile, Illinois House 50th District
Incumbent Republican Keith Wheeler of Oswego faces a challenge from Democrat Kate Monteleone, a nonprofits consultant from unincorporated Fox Mill, in the race for Illinois House from the 50th District, which takes in parts of Aurora, Batavia, Big Rock, Campton Hills, Elburn, Geneva, Lily Lake, Montgomery, North Aurora, Oswego, Plano, Prestbury, St. Charles, Sugar Grove and Yorkville.
The Daily Herald recently asked the candidates a series of questions. Here are their replies.
Q. Should Speaker Madigan resign from his leadership positions? If he does not resign, will you support him for a new term as House speaker?
A. The Speaker controls all legislation brought to the House Floor for consideration which is related to the corruption outlined in the deferred prosecution agreement to which ComEd agreed. With that in mind, the case for the Speaker to step down from his leadership position while the investigation is ongoing seems appropriate. There needs to be a substantial, bipartisan, ethics reform package passed and I support a special session to be called by Gov. Pritzker to do so. Speaker Madigan is the longest serving speaker of the House in our nation's history.
Since I was sworn in as a representative in 2015, we have seen too many instances of his failure of leadership. He has overseen a hostile workplace for multiple women with insufficient follow-up by his office. In some instances, there was even intimidation by members of his team. I joined every member of the Republican caucus in calling for his Speaker Madigan's resignation. I do not believe that he will be sworn in as speaker of the House next January, nor should he be.
Q. Describe at least two circumstances in which you have shown or would show a willingness and capacity to act independently of the direction or demands of party leadership.
A. The General Assembly is tasked with approving the appointment of the Auditor General, who serves a 10-year term. There was significant pressure to approve the current Auditor General's appointment unanimously, but I wasn't comfortable with the lack of independence as the person nominated happened to serve as a member of the Speaker's leadership team. When the vote finally took place, there were just nine other members who withstood the pressure and voted against the appointment.
Let me present the other side of the situation now that I serve in a leadership position in the House Republican Caucus. When a fellow House GOP member makes a misguided choice that I can't support, it can be very difficult to publicly vote against them. During session in May, a requirement regarding the wearing of masks on the House (convention) floor was adopted. When a GOP member made a point of not wearing a face covering, a motion was made to have that GOP representative removed from the chamber. I was one of a handful of GOP members to vote in favor of the removal. It would have been easier to just vote No. Over the next three days, my colleague wore a face covering without incident.
Q. How would you rate the governor's handling of the COVID-19 crisis? Does the legislature need to have more input and influence in establishing rules and policies related to stemming the spread of the disease? What would you have done differently, if anything? If nothing, please say so.
A. I would give Gov. Pritzker praise for his efforts to communicate with the public, but he deserves criticism for the handling of the state's unemployment system. I think that the daily updates early on were helpful for the most part. I believe that the governor and Dr. (Ngozi) Ezike have done an admirable job communicating the risks and preventive measures that need to be taken. I also commend the governor for implementing the testing facilities across Illinois. Our state has certainly been one of the leaders in that area.
However, I would have liked to have seen much more collaboration with the General Assembly during this process. The biggest problem from our district office perspective is that the governor has failed too many families who are struggling with their unemployment benefits. Recent reports state that the majority of the calls made to IDES have not been answered. My office has had to direct far too many people to food pantries because they can't feed their families as a result of the lack of responsiveness from IDES. I understand that this is not easy task. However, five months is too long to wait for your benefits when you have a family to feed.
Q. Regardless of whether the federal government provides assistance, what is the impact of the pandemic on the state's economic outlook and what immediate and long-term actions should be taken to address it? Would you support increasing taxes to pay for COVID-19 response or to make up for lost revenue related to COVID-19?
A. COVID-19 is going to have a disastrous impact on our state and state budget. The current budget that was just passed in May is already factoring in billions of dollars from the passage of the graduated income tax amendment this November that may not pass. The majority party chose a path based on federal funds coming to the rescue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and didn't prepare an alternative. Raising taxes on business and families is the absolute last thing we should be doing right now. Illinois businesses are already having a very hard time dealing with COVID-19 on top of the high cost of doing business in Illinois due to policies that originated in Springfield.
My focus since I got elected is to foster an environment that creates, "Illinois Jobs for Illinois Families." Over the last five years Illinois has become an out-migration state. Extraordinarily high property taxes is the number 1 reason I hear from people leaving the 50th district. We need people to start moving to Illinois so we can grow our economy and our tax base. Our budget process has to be more inclusive to achieve a sustainable balance that grows us out of the hole that we face.
Q. What initiatives would you propose or support to lower the property tax burden?
A. The first thing we need to do is to keep our residents from fleeing to other states. The next is to attract new business with high-paying jobs to relocate to Illinois. We are losing jobs, companies, and residents to other states which have a much more competitive tax and regulation environment. Our bond ratings are hovering above junk, which costs the state more money on interest payments. Corporations are not coming here in large enough numbers, they're leaving.
College students are not choosing to attend Illinois universities because they are not competitive with neighboring states. When in-state tuition is more expensive in Illinois than out-of-state tuition, there is a serious problem and students have figured that out. Taxpayers invest in twelve years of public schooling for our children. When they attend colleges and universities outside of Illinois and don't return to our state, then we lose the investment we've made in them. We hope to get a return on investment that these children will put down roots in Illinois and become high income producers. Every single aspect of state spending needs to be reviewed. We need to look at the procurement process for state spending.
Q. The graduated income tax is designed with the intent to reduce taxes for 97 percent of Illinoisans. Do you believe that will happen? Why or why not?
A. What assurances can be given to voters?
The 97% of constituents who are desperately hoping for real property tax relief ultimately call this tax reduction a joke when they learn that they can't even buy a fast-food meal for their family with the "tax cut." Increasing that burden on our highest income residents will only motivate more of them to leave our state. Ask New Jersey after their wealthiest resident moved to Florida. I voted against adding this question to the ballot when this bill was in the Illinois House.
The solution to every problem according to the majority party always seems to be a tax increase. Voters should take into account that the ballot question opens the door to higher taxes for the middle class, not just the rich. Once there is no restriction on how to tax individuals as a single group, the legislature can pass tax increases with a simple majority of each chamber along with a willing governor. The constitutional changes don't even require the tax rate to be higher on higher incomes. It's pretty hard to convince people that our fiscal discipline in Springfield has earned their trust on a more flexible way to take their family's hard-earned money.
Q. Do you support any type of tax on retirement benefits?
A. Absolutely not! We cannot tax our way out of this problem. The more we increase taxes, the more that people will be forced to leave our state. The higher our taxes, the fewer people will want to relocate here. Illinois residents are already among the highest taxed in the country. At some point we must look at alternatives. We must reduce spending. There are very few financial advantages to living in Illinois. One of the few that we have in Illinois is not taxing retirement income. If we remove that incentive to stay in Illinois, it will trigger a mass exodus of retirees. We've seen statistics of state employees who retired to other states. Unfortunately, those dollars are not being spent in Illinois due to a host of problems self-inflicted by the legislature.
Q. Should Illinois prohibit lawmakers from lobbying other levels of government? Should lawmakers be prohibited from becoming lobbyists after their term in office? For how long?
A. Yes, lawmakers should be prohibited from lobbying other levels of government. There are just too many conflicts of interest that arise while acting as both a lobbyist and an elected official. As part of a comprehensive ethics reform package, I could see that lawmakers should have a waiting period after serving in the legislature. Before we get to that part of the process, we need to better define just what a lobbyist is or there will be no ethical benefit to a waiting period. This really needs to be part of a much larger conversation.
Q. What are the most important components that should be included in legislative ethics reform? What will you do to help them come to pass?
A. Earlier this month, the House Republican caucus called for a special session of the Illinois legislature to demand ethics reform legislation be passed immediately. House Republicans have filed nearly sixty bills during the 101st General Assembly which would address ethics in Illinois. While we need an all-encompassing bill that addresses a host of issues, we should be able to find bipartisan support for a bill that addresses the practice of legislators acting as lobbyists while in office. The focus on legislating shouldn't be displaced by concerns for clients instead of the benefit of the district constituents and the state as a whole.
Follow an obvious reform like restricting legislators from acting as lobbyists with other critical, yet potentially more difficult measures like term limits for legislative leaders, more thorough statements of economic interests from legislators, prohibiting legislators from holding multiple elected offices, and improving the process of filling legislator vacancies. Some form of most all of these proposals have found their way to die in the Rules Committee. I find that to be unacceptable.
Q. What should the state do to address the still-growing problems with its key pension programs?
A. First, stop making it worse. We have to continue to pay what we need to pay even though it is painful. If the state hadn't overpromised and underpaid along the path to today, our pension costs this year would be around $2.2 billion. Instead, we are paying over $9 billion. That impact to our budget has negatively impacted our education funding (and every kind of funding). It explains why Illinois has ridiculous property taxes since that's the education funding source where Illinois' political class decided to take up the slack.
Let's repeat the bipartisan process we applied to the pension system consolidation for the police and firefighter pensions. We need to take a similar approach to find remedies to other pension inefficiencies to save taxpayer dollars. Expanding the pension buyout option that started just a few years ago is another important step. The buyouts effectively lower the principal and the interest rate that the state owes on the unfunded liability. Pensioners are willing to take a reduced amount for the payout to get their money in a lump sum, which gives them more flexibility in planning their own retirement. It's a win-win and we should look to do more of that.
Q. Do you believe climate change is caused by human activity? What steps should state government be taking to address the issue?
A. The governor's team has restarted the Clean Energy working group with dozens of advocates and stakeholders alongside legislators in meeting after meeting trying to understand how Illinois can move toward a clean energy future. I am one of three House Republican members who participate in this working group and I am hearing from all corners of Illinois about what we should be doing ranging from CEJA to Path to 100 to the Governor's Principles for a Clean & Renewable Illinois Economy to a combination of these.
Ultimately, we have to find a balance that makes clean energy a priority while still protecting ratepayers -- the same ratepayers who may have been negatively impacted by what was found in ComEd's deferred prosecution agreement. That balance needs to take into account regions affected by coal plant closures as well as those where nuclear plants have been threatened with shutdown. There are many, many moving parts to this process and understanding the implications of wholesale changes to the energy procurement and distribution systems in Illinois will require tremendously careful consideration and collaboration.
Q. Protesters have massed in the streets in Chicago and other cities across Illinois for greater social justice and changes in the funding and responsibilities for police. How significant a role does systemic racism play in limiting equal opportunity in Illinois? To the degree that it exists, what should be done about it? What, if any, changes should be made in funding and duties of police?
A. I wholeheartedly support a balanced approach to police reform. During the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, I spoke with local officials, police officers, fellow legislators on both sides of the aisle, community activists, and especially my friends in the Black Caucus. I believe that we should evaluate our current approach to law enforcement training and mental health assessment both at the hiring stage, as well as throughout a police officer's career in order to make sure that the right people are in place along with the most appropriate and effective resources to support our law enforcement personnel.
With that basis in mind, additional efforts toward community engagement are a top priority to rebuild the relationship and trust between community members and law enforcement personnel. It is my understanding that licensure and other legislative efforts could be discussed in veto session and I plan to be an active participant in those discussions.