Republican Hamilton Chang of Wilmette and Democrat Daniel Biss of Evanston are both candidates for the 17th District house seat vacated by Beth Coulson.
Mr. Biss is a former professor of mathematics; Mr. Chang is a financial adviser. Each said he believed that the corruption in Springfield obstructs potential progress in many areas. The RoundTable recently asked them about their views on the state budget, pension liabilities and education.
Both candidates said they believe the state budget, with about a $13 billion deficit, is a top priority. Each told the RoundTable that increasing taxes would be a last resort.
“The budget is the top priority, because the state has essentially come to a standstill because of it,” said Mr. Biss. “We see terrible corruption in Springfield: Budgets are drawn up in secret. There is no [public] process.” Because of that, Mr. Biss said, he would not favor an increase in income tax because “the money would just be going into [the same corrupt] pot. … The big picture is that unless you change the [budget] process, nothing will change,” he said.
Mr. Chang said he thinks the budget can be balanced through cuts. “The problem is so huge and there are so many levels, we have to start [by looking where to make cuts] line by line, department by department. … Inefficiencies must be reviewed before we cut even one social service.” … People want to see better government, efficient government.” He said he sees the budget deficits as the result not of a “structural” issue but of a “political-will” issue.”
Although there are major pension problems at the state level, the RoundTable’s pension question focused on what action each candidate, if elected, would propose the State take to help municipalities with their pension burdens, which some City officials say is growing at an unsustainable rate. Since 1995 the state’s General Assembly has at least three times increased the benefits that municipalities must pay for fire and police personnel but without offering to help defray those costs.
Mr. Chang said, “That’s another [thing] that just has to stop. I don’t think that Springfield should be the ‘arbiter’ of pensions for municipalities. … The government closest to the people is the one best for the people.” He said he thinks that, since public safety personnel in different communities – Lake Forest and Waukegan were his examples – have different risk factors, local communities should be able to determine their pension contributions.
Mr. Biss said, “It’s fact that that the situation for the municipalities is a really perverse one: Springfield makes the public sector employees happy when the [General Assembly] increases benefits” but the municipalities are the ones that foot the bill. “Springfield has to address the system. The [General Assembly] has already addressed [some] pensions, i.e., those for some new public-sector employees. The new reforms will make [some] pension [payments] much more affordable but it does not help with fire and police and municipal employees,” Mr. Biss said. IMRF is the retirement fund for Illinois municipal employees.
Mr. Biss also said, “There are employees in the system to whom promises have been made. … The debate is about how to make the state solvent. The public sector employees do not want a bankrupt state.”
Mr. Chang said he thinks efficiency and meritocracy are the lenses through which to look at public education. He said he disagrees with “the cuts in public education [proposed] by [Governor Pat] Quinn and [House speaker Michael] Madigan – that’s eating your seed crop,” he said. In education, he said, “I’m for the education of children and for a union that protects workers, not shirkers. … I believe in a merit-based system. In the private sector people are held accountable. People who educate our children should be held to a standard of merit.”
Mr. Chang said he supports charter schools as well as vouchers that parents can use to pay tuition at private schools. “If the parent believes [a charter or private school] provides better education,” he said, the choice should be their. “Vouchers [I support] 100 percent.” He said he believes charter schools and vouchers provide necessary competition for public schools: “This is a key principle: Competition is a good thing. There should be competition for large institutions. Competition produces superior results.”
Asked whether he would support funding for education by means other than property taxes, Mr. Chang said, “State funding is so lopsided: We take tax dollars and give them to Springfield. I’m not happy with the values we are getting from our government.” He added that he would not support “the redistribution of our tax dollars” on a more equitable statewide basis: Communities that collect property taxes should be able to spend their own money on local public schools, he said.
Mr. Biss said he “always supports” charter schools, because “they are one way of injecting competition into public education.” He said he worked in a charter high school on the South Side of Chicago, “and their attitude toward education was transformative.” He does not support vouchers for private-school education, because “they’re about taking money out of the public education system. They [would take us] in the wrong direction.”
Mr. Biss also said he believes the education “funding system is bad, because it relies too much on property taxes. … An important long-term goal is to move away from that.”
He also said that, “when we’re looking at a $13 billion hole in the budget, we can’t increase [education funding] right now. Yes, a long-term goal is not to fund education through property taxes, but, in the short term, there’s too much debt [to make changes].”
Mr. Biss added that he feels the goal of the state’s education policy “is to have every school child in Illinois have access to good public education.”