At a town hall meeting on Jan. 17, just days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, State Senator Daniel Biss spoke of the current problems in the State of Illinois and the threats to the State and its residents from likely decisions on the federal level, some of which would leave many Illinois residents without protections.
At the State level, Sen. Biss decried the unprecedented and ongoing lack of a State budget and castigated both Democrats and Republicans for failing to reach a compromise on spending. The refusal to agree on spending has forced social service agencies to close and has left many of the most vulnerable residents without protection, he said.
The Illinois State Soap Opera
“Where are we now in the ongoing soap opera of ‘Illinois is Not Where We Want It to Be?’” Sen. Biss said, as he recapped the stalemate on spending that has plagued the State since the beginning of Governor Bruce Rauner’s term of office. The pension problem and several other State messes, he said, were the legacy of previous governors, both Democrat and Republican.
Since the beginning, Gov. Rauner has said he would approve only a budget that included all or most of the provisions of his “turnaround agenda.”
“Little has changed since then, but 2015 ended; 2016 began without a budget; the 2016 legislative session ended in June of 2016.” Expenditures have been made to keep many things going: court-ordered distribution of certain federal funds, funds for some State universities, such as Chicago State.
“The Governor’s agenda is idiosyncratic, partisan, and far-right,” said Sen. Biss. The demands in the turnaround agenda change frequently, he said, but at its heart it is anti-union.
Democrats felt that the Governor’s demands, many of which had little to do directly with a State budget, were not acceptable, and at least one budget he proposed was not balanced – even though the Governor is required by law to introduce a balanced budget.
“A lot of people got hurt. Social service providers shut down; community colleges and universities did not know what do to. Violence is up. People are being hurt.
“Democrats want to move forward, but there are some things Democrats haven’t done. Seeing the devastation in this state, Democrats have not said how we think it should be fixed – fix the budget and provide services properly. I’m trying to organize legislation to put together the Democrat agenda.”
Audience members asked about the future of the budget, environmental issues, education funding, and the possibility of a strike by State employees.
“State employees and the Governor have been in negotiations for 18 months,” Sen. Biss said. “The governor wants them to strike,” he said, so public opinion would side with him.
Asked about the likely future of funding for public education, Sen. Biss said the proposed two-year property tax freeze (HB6630) is coupled with a mandate that would “make it cheaper to run a school district,” such as making outsourcing easier and relaxing requirements such as driver education.
“If we want to have a property-tax freeze, we should do it in the context that it fund schools property,” Sen. Biss said. “If we want to fund schools and lower property taxes, we need more money from someplace else.”
The current Illinois Constitution mandates a flat tax, so all residents, regardless of their income, pay the same income-tax rate, 3.75% at present, and that can be changed only by a Constitutional amendment. “I don’t think it’s a good policy,” Sen. Biss told the RoundTable. Democrats, he said, should be leading the charge for Illinois to allow a fairer tax.
Fears from the Fed
Senator Biss gave two examples where federal action could harm Illinois residents: the “welcoming” stance taken by the City of Evanston and Evanston Township High School, in which the City and the high school each pledged not to cooperate with Immigration and Customs officials in their civil pursuits, despite the possibility of retaliation on the federal level, and the potential for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. The State of Illinois, he said, should extend a similar welcome and protection to Illinois residents. Should Roe v. Wade be overturned, then abortion would become illegal in Illinois, he said, and a bill to keep abortion legal here, HB 40, has been introduced.
The looming of the repeal of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA, also called “Obamacare”) would leave more than 1 million Illinois residents without health-care coverage by 2019, Sen. Biss said, and cause the loss of 114,000 jobs and $110 billion in business output by 2023.
“Most people, like me, don’t think the ACA is perfect. The message that’s being sent to the president-elect and Congress is ‘Don’t just throw this in the trash. Don’t just expose 1.3 million Illinois residents to the risk of illness and death by repealing and not replacing the ACA.’” He said Governor John Kasich of Ohio is working to replace the ACA. “We have the opportunity, with a Republican governor, to make Gov. Kasich feel less lonely. … We have a remarkable opportunity to tell Gov. Rauner not to repeal the ACA.” He requested those in attendance – who numbered about 100 – “to write to Bruce Rauner to ask those in D.C. not to do this thing that would destroy our state.
“Speak out against the repeal. This is not the time to be silent. … It is really impossible to look away from. … As we have struggled with the policy decision happening at the federal level, we feel concerned about the direction the federal government is going to take. … The kinds of questions being asked require us to take a stand. I am part of the resistance movement.”