WNIJ continues its Friday Forum with two state senators and their priorities in the 100th General Assembly.
Democrat Steve Stadelman and Republican Dave Syverson represent Illinois’ 34th and 35th senate districts respectively. The 34th district comprises Rockford and its surrounding municipalities, while the 35th encompasses the cities of DeKalb, Sycamore, Genoa, Belvidere, and Rockton.
The 100th General Assembly has many tasks ahead, but the most important is passing a state budget. It's been at a stalemate for a year-and-a-half. Stadelman acknowledges that the rank and file have proposed some compromises as well as recent concessions in the Senate. However, he says the issue comes down to the leadership in both chambers.
"I think both sides have to be willing to reach an agreement," he explains. "That hasn’t been the case right now and, unfortunately, there seem to be some signs that people are already posturing for the 2018 gubernatorial election."
Despite this budget gridlock, both senators note that the average Illinoisan hasn't felt its full effects. Stadelman says this is because 90% of state programs are covered by court orders or consent decrees. The governor also signed legislation funding primary and secondary education. However, Syverson says this isn't an ideal way to keep these operations running.
"Each month, we’re falling deeper into debt because those mandated programs that continue even without a budget still need to be paid for," he said.
The Republican says this emergency funding adds about $5 million to the state debt.
While both senators agree that a new budget will require tax increases, they differ in how long these measures would last. Stadelman says rates need to change, but Syverson doesn't want the taxes to stay on the books once economic growth has caught up enough to cover expenses. He contrasts his idea of a temporary tax with that of former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.
"He put the temporary tax on and he didn’t pay bills," Syverson said. "He expanded government, which put us into the mess we’re in."
Beyond a budget settlement, both senators have their own individual priorities. Stadelman emphasizes education and wants to reform the state's long-debated school funding formula. He criticizes the current system as too reliant on property taxes, which can be a hindrance to low-income residents. Stadelman also says that continually raising local taxes to make up holes in the debt is harmful to local capital.
However, that reform would only apply to K-12 schools. For colleges and universities, Stadelman wants a more secure source of funding altogether.
"I think it’s been a very difficult two years as it is, and now they’re back in the same situation they were before the last stopgap measure," he says. "Where will that funding come from?"
Overall, Stadelman believes a more equitable formula for primary and secondary schools and a less volatile source of money for higher education will have positive effects on the state's human capital and, by extension, jobs.
Syverson is also focused on the economy, but feels that businesses are leaving the state due to high costs. His most prominent proposal would make two tweaks to the Illinois workers' compensation system. The first involves the "causation argument."
"In Illinois," Syverson explains, "if an employee can claim work caused at least one percent of that injury, then they can collect the full worker’s compensation benefits from the employer."
Syverson says the current burden of proof allows employees to derive workplace benefits from injuries suffered at home. These, in his opinion, are better served by disability benefits. He also thinks the system can be abused when injured parties test positive for drug and alcohol use. Currently, he says employers have to prove the injury was caused by these substances beyond a reasonable doubt.
"In many cases, we get employees that get hurt on the job even though they’ve been drinking or on drugs, and the employer gets stuck having to pay salary and medical costs," he adds.
In addition to workers' compensation reform, Syverson also supports an expanded gambling bill. It would allow casinos to be built near Illinois borders so that money isn't lost to surrounding states. The bill, which the Republican claims already has bipartisan support in the Senate, would permit casinos in Chicago, South Cook, Lake County, Danville, and Rockford.
Beyond their individual priorities, each senator says the new General Assembly will need to respond to national politics. The most immediate consequence is likely to be the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Stadelman wants to ensure Illinois residents don't lose their insurance, while Syverson would prefer to bolster the state's managed-care Medicaid system. One quarter of Illinoisans are on Medicaid.
Overall, Stadelman and Syverson believe a budget compromise is quite possible in the new General Assembly However, the final proposal may still be a long way away.
You can listen to each Senator's full interview below: