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Robyn Gabel has served at the representative from the 18th District since 2010. She spoke with the RoundTable about her accomplishments in the House, the challenge of reforming State education funding, the pension crisis, and the stalemate in Springfield.
“Being the state representative from the 18th District has been a wonderful opportunity to pass and promote good bills, legislation that has helped millions of people throughout the State,” including the most vulnerable among us, she said. She mentioned laws aiding those with mental illness, the developmentally disabled, and people on food stamps as examples. Some 40,000 more people get food stamps now, she said, without any additional State dollars thanks to legislation she sponsored.
“Each year I sponsor and pass at least seven bills on issues of education, renewable energy, disability services, health care, and voting rights. I plan to return to Springfield and work hard to resolve the budget impasse and put Illinois on a path to fiscal stability,” she added.
A controversial proposal in Springfield would reallocate state education dollars away from places like Evanston to poorer, largely downstate school districts. Ms. Gabel said she hoped to add provisions to the bill under which “districts like ours are held harmless in this process” or be given “more time to adjust if State dollars are going down.”
“The [funding] formula has to reflect poverty ratios in the district, not just property value.
Evanston really is an anomaly in that respect,” said Rep. Gabel. “I will make sure that dollars follow the child not just the average income in the district.” She also supports additional assistance for Chicago Public Schools, she said, because “we live in a regional economy.” Rep. Gabel mentioned evidence-based research, noting that programs identified should be implemented to “improve education as we figure out how to fund it.”
The pension crisis faded from the news somewhat, given the State’s failure to pass a budget the past two years, but funding the obligations of State and local governments to pay police, fire and teacher pensions remains a critical need.
“The Supreme Court did make a decision about pensions,” said Ms. Gabel, referencing an Illinois Supreme Court decision ruling changes to pension laws unconstitutional. “So anything we do about pensions has to take the Court ruling into account.”
One option, she said, would be to “re-amortize debt over a longer period of time. We would be doing something, and after 40 years the debt would be paid off.” Given changes instituted in 2010 that “changed the pension package for everyone hired after Jan. 1, 2011,” the underfunded problem is time-limited, she said.
Another solution may be pension buyouts, a proposal under current consideration. Any solution, though, comes with nuances. “We have to be careful” to protect the promises made to State employees, she said.
The stalemate between Governor Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Mike Madigan continues, and “both sides are a little shocked about the situation,” said Ms. Gabel. “I am willing to work with anyone, regardless of political affiliation, to get a budget.”
A plan has been put together by legislators from both parties and the Governor’s office, she said, but the Governor still wants to implement portions of his Turnaround Agenda. “Compromises are available, but they are compromises. He’s not going to get everything he wants,” said Rep. Gabel, adding, “I can’t imagine the State going without a budget…Everybody knows there’s no plausible scenario that the State’s budget gets better without additional revenue. Everyone agrees.”
Despite the budget stalemate, “There were 400 bills passed this year in Springfield. We continue to do the work we are sent here to do,” passing criminal justice reform bills, closing private prisons, and concerning mental health issues, Rep. Gabel said.
In conclusion, Rep. Gabel said the voters in the 18th District should vote for her because “I have a proven track record [as] an effective, hard-working legislator who represents the values of our district. I have perseverance, grit, and I don’t give up.”
From moment one, Jessica Tucker, who is running on the Republican ticket, stresses her nonpartisan roots as the Village Board President in Winnetka. “We need to get along with Springfield,” she said, and stop the “finger pointing” and “partisan” fighting. “The State is decimated,” she said.
A shift in power at the State level away from a supermajority of Democrats may result in needed change, she said. With a House Speaker in power for decades, the legislature still “can’t produce a balanced budget [and they] just want to raise taxes,” said Ms. Tucker, citing a Paul Simon Institute finding that 84% of respondents believe the State is “headed in the wrong direction. And the #1 reason is taxes.”
Her decision to run for the House “comes from the heart,” she said, and from a “frustration with supermajority status quo.” The budget should be first, the primary job of the House, and yet despite the fact the Constitution requires a balanced budget, one expert claims Illinois has not had a truly balanced budget since the 1980s.
On school funding, Ms. Tucker said Illinois has “one of the worst funding gaps and it has widened over time.” Districts with less property value fund schools at a far lower per student rate than richer districts. “I don’t like to see money taken away” from districts, she said, so the State needs to “find new revenue or shift resources” around, such as “Medicaid, pension, cutting administrative expenses, or re-amortizing debt.” She admitted, “We may have to look at additional sources of revenue.”
“The Governor formed a task force, bipartisan, bicameral” to look “at all of these issues [surrounding] school funding. I would look at that group and their recommendation [to] be more fair in funding…. I would defer to that committee that the Governor put in place.”
As for the pension crisis, Ms. Tucker said, “When I was Village President in 2009, two of the biggest issues [municipalities were] telling lawmakers to fix” are still befuddling lawmakers: the budget crisis and pension crisis. “Nothing’s been done,” she said.
She then shifted gears slightly, referring to the “tier 2 pension system put into place” effective 2011. Still, pension funding represents about “20 to 25% of the budget” and the State must keep “all options on the table going forward… Pension promises were made and those promises should be kept.”
As a start, Ms. Tucker would “transition lawmakers out of defined benefit plans and into 401Ks, or, because they are part time, out of the system entirely… Set the example” that would apply to all new State employees… Now new employees are still going into defined benefit retirement plans.”
The pension obligations are so large the State “couldn’t tax your way out of this.” She specifically referenced “Senator [John] Cullerton’s buyout proposal” as one option, while cautioning that deciding whether to fund school, public safety, or pensions is not a good choice.
Regarding the stalemate in Springfield, she said, “It’s tough. Both sides need to put aside partisanship and get on to the business at hand.” In Winnetka, “it was non-partisan. We didn’t care [about party affiliation]. That’s my perspective going forward.”
Governor Bruce Rauner has a Turnaround Agenda with 40-50 points, she said. “He is willing to compromise on almost anything.” Items such as term limits, independent electoral maps, and workers’ compensation reform remain important, she said.
Ms. Tucker suggested the House and Senate reach a compromise on workers’ compensation, saying her husband’s law firm, where she also works as an attorney, practices some defense side workers’ compensation law. “Let’s try to be a little more business friendly.”
She said she was running on the Republican ticket because there is “not a good way to run as an independent” in Illinois. “I couldn’t vote for speaker Madigan, so I guess I had to run as a Republican.” She acknowledged that having Donald Trump as a standard-bearer created problems, but said she does not support Trump.
“I will represent the people [and be] a voice for the constituents of the 18th District, not for a political party… I am not running against the incumbent so much as running for the State, said Ms. Tucker.