Photo by Dermot Connolly
State Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th), from left, state Sen. Mike Hastings (19th) and state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) were among the participants in the Breakfast with Your Legislators forum held last Thursday at St. Xavier University in Chicago.
Photo by Dermot Connolly
The 2018 gubernatorial election and the ongoing recovery from being without a state budget for more than two years were among the topics discussed at the 12th Annual Breakfast with Your Legislators held last Thursday at St. Xavier University in Chicago.
State senators Bill Cunningham (D-18th) and Mike Hastings (D-19th), state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th), Cook County Board Commissioner John Daley (D-11th) and Chicago Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) participated in the panel discussion moderated by former state Senator Ed Maloney.
The officeholders responded to questions submitted by community members invited to the breakfast, and one of the first issues touched on was the unpopular sweetened beverage tax, which ended last Thursday after the Cook County Board decision to end it after less than a year.
“In my time in state and county government, I have seen many taxes before but I’ve never seen a tax that met so much opposition. That is why I reacted to it,” said Daley, who was the first Democrat on the county board to speak in favor of repealing it.
“We did pass a balanced budget without it. But we had to lay off 300 people, and take 1,000 vacancies out of the system,” said Daley.
“We tried to work with the unions. If they had agreed to furlough days, they would not be laid off,” said Daley. He noted that no cuts were made in the law enforcement area, including police and Cook County Jail staff.
When asked about the state budget situation, all three state legislators agreed that the 2018 budget cycle will be difficult, but not as bad as this past year, when the state Legislature passed a budget after two years without one.
“With the election coming up, Gov. Rauner will want to be out campaigning and not in the Legislature. But I don’t make any predictions on this governor because he is just a little erratic these days,” said Hastings.
Hastings said he has seen former governors Jim Edgar and Pat Quinn in the state Legislature over the past year more often than Rauner.
“And they don’t even work there,” he said.
“We still have a $15 billion hole in our budget because of the two years without a budget. It will take us a long time to dig out of. But we essentially refinanced the debt, and we cut spending,” said Burke.
“We’re also cleaning up the unfunded pension liabilities…We’re going to be making very difficult choices about what needed to be funded and what we can afford,” said Burke.
She said that having a state budget has provided the funding the Monetary Award Program, known as MAP grants, has helped college students and the institutions that depend on them.
“We actually increased MAP grant funding to $410 million this year. That is a substantial amount of money.”
She said that although all the MAP grant funding due to students was paid this year, “all the hesitation was very stressful” for students and college administrators alike.
Hastings noted that enrollment at Governors State University, which was struggling, has quadrupled now that the financial situation has stabilized with the state budget. But other universities such as Southern Illinois University and Northern Illinois University that had declining enrollment even before the crisis are still having problems.
“Part of the problem is that the population is declining in southern Illinois,” said Burke. “Except for New Jersey, we are the second-biggest exporter of college students in the country. And many of those students don’t come back here when they graduate.”
When Hastings was asked about plans for the Tinley Park Mental Health Center, which the state closed in 2012, he predicted that “the property will be repurposed for business and entertainment uses.”
“The site has been appraised for $4 million but $14 million in environmental mitigation is needed,” he noted.
The legislators also criticized Rauner for focusing on anti-union issues, and trying to turn Illinois into a “right-to-work” state.
“I’ve worked with other governors, and you can have a social agenda. But your main job as governor is to pass a balanced budget,” said Daley.
After the meeting, Cunningham said he has endorsed state Sen. Daniel Biss (D-9th) in the gubernatorial primary on March 20.
“He is a colleague and a friend,” said Cunningham. “He has a difficult road ahead, but I see a path forward for him,” he added, acknowledging the uphill battle against people such as billionaire JB Pritzker and Chris Kennedy.
“Illinois voters’ first inclination is not to go for a billionaire without any government experience,” said Cunningham.