I am not much of a gambler.  I do run small businesses, but those are carefully built service and risk plans and are not at all similar to pulling the lever to see if I get a payout – like video gambling machines around town. And while I advocate wise financial choices, I don’t believe in unsolicited financial advice and would never tell anyone how to spend their hard-earned money.

However, it seems that our State would. Previously, I wrote about the Secure Choice Savings Plan that automatically enrolls employees into a privately-run investment fund.  I believe a program that tells our citizens what to do with their money is an overreach of government. Each individual or family knows their financial situation and priorities better than the government and should be given the option to choose how to save or how to not save their money. What if that 3% taken from a paycheck meant the difference between paying or not paying for the utilities or mortgage this month?  Our citizens realize that saving for retirement is important and didn’t need the state to tell them that.

The State also provides another way for unsuspecting citizens to spend their money: video game gambling. While it is not a forced expense by the State, we all know that it was legalized as yet another method to increase revenue. And for many of our area residents, it has become an addicting pastime. Here’s how I know that: in the City of Freeport alone, $50 million dollars were “played” in video game gambling, according to articles featured in both The Journal Standard and The Rockford Register Star, generating over $206,000 in tax revenue in 2014.

And by played, I mean wagered; let us not get confused by the softer, spin language.  I have not yet figured out how to solve my internal struggle with the financial straits Illinois finds itself in, the interesting methods Illinois finds of creating tax revenue, and the presence of video gaming in our communities. Simply, I need your input.

My first point is that not all of the $50 million came from the pockets of Freeport citizens.  I’m sure there were out-of-district dollars that stopped into Freeport to support our community and the businesses that have the video gambling machines.  I don’t know what percentage of the $50 million pie comes from outside of town or out-of-state.

Secondly, I ask, is $206,027.38 enough money in returned tax revenue to justify $50 million gambled in 2014 within the Freeport city limits alone?  As a percentage, tax revenue compared to gambled dollars Freeport only saw 0.4 percent returned home to our city.

Do you think that 0.4 percent is enough to justify the additional burden being placed on families destroyed from a gambling addiction?  Is one family too many to sacrifice for the benefit of $206,000 in tax revenue?  Sure, I’m talking about a hypothetical, and human nature says, “that won’t happen to me,” but I’ve heard from enough addicts during my time with the Sheriff’s department and I understand the life altering changes that occur from a serious addiction.

Alternatively, I ask this: with the fiscal crisis facing the State of Illinois, can we afford to turn away business and taxing opportunities?  Someone out there is making money on gambling, someone out there is employing people and creating jobs for our community.  I appreciate the risks of launching a business and I appreciate the customer base for frequenting those establishments. Money spent in our community is a good thing.  Also, $50 million is a strong signal that our neighbors support and enjoy video gambling.

Finally, when the State of Illinois has to turn to gambling and selling drugs (medical marijuana) to fund our schools and fix our roads, do we have a bigger problem with the direction of our State?  I see this as a simplified version of the recent laws passed, and there are pros and cons on each side, but I write today to tell you I’m having this internal struggle.  Citizens enjoy spending their money on gambling; it is a financial risk and reward “game.”  Now that we know $50 million nets the city $206,000 in tax revenue and comes with additional moral implications, is this worth it for us?  There is much more than this column can address as it relates to the numbers; however you can check out the information yourself for your community in the 89th District at the Illinois Gaming Board at www.igb.illinois.gov click on Video Gaming and then click monthly reports by establishment or municipality.

This week’s topic reminds of a quote from Hunter S. Thompson: “there are many harsh lessons to be learned from the gambling experience, but the harshest one of all is the difference between having FUN and being SMART.”

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.
Two events recently started me thinking even more than I normally do about our region’s economy. On Wednesday, Highland Community College’s Leadership Institute met in the meeting space of one of my buildings. They discussed issues facing Freeport and the surrounding region, obstacles to economic progress, and catalysts needed for growth. Then, I spent Thursday morning with The Community Development Fund of Galena at the Desoto House. Jo Daviess County leaders presented issues facing the Jo Daviess County and Galena economy and community as well as progress that has been made recently.

A cause for concern for many leaders in the 89th district is the shrinking labor force. I can think, in particular, of a business opportunity I had recently, but, to move forward, I had to be sure I had an adequate labor pool to draw from. After weeks of research on the part of my staff, we determined we wouldn’t be able to hire enough people with the right skill set, so we had to allow the opportunity to pass us by. Our shrinking labor force is not from a lack of strong families and talented young people. However, many of our young local talent go to college and then seek employment in cities with higher paying jobs and with better social activities. And while I love our region, I can’t blame them. Most college grads these days are saddled with seemingly insurmountable college debt and those urban salaries combined with the opportunity to grow their careers seem pretty alluring.

We have to ask ourselves, what can we do to keep them here and to draw in new talent from across the state and country? Our promise of easy commutes and little traffic won’t do the trick. And neither will our current unemployment rates. So what will?

A good start would be building on our existing higher educational institutions by introducing or further developing internship and apprenticeship programs into the region. We need more programs similar to the ones already developed by district-wide organizations to continue to inspire local students to be successful as well as encouraging them to develop connections to the community, leadership expertise, and skills related to their chosen fields.

Our region needs more of what I saw on Wednesday at the Leadership Institute—young professionals learning how to affect change in our area—and more of what I saw on Thursday in Galena—city, county, and state leaders joining forces to develop a unified view of economic obstacles and ways those obstacles can be overcome.

And we need more than just the leaders to join forces. We need young people to imagine great ideas and then implement them. We need business people to continue to grow their businesses, hire new employees, and then reinvest in the community. We need retirees, with their wisdom acquired over a lifetime, to mentor the next generation.

Economic change requires action. And action requires people. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, late sixteenth and early seventeenth century poet, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Each individual in our region has the opportunity to make a positive impact; and each choice will have a ripple effect. We can stimulate our region’s economy, but it will require every person making a choice to contribute.

If you participated in an internship or an apprenticeship program, let me hear your story and the benefits of your experience on Facebook this week.

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.
The 99th General Assembly convened for inauguration this past week in Springfield.  Wednesday, January 14th, I took my oath of office, along with the other 117 members of the Illinois House of Representatives.  The pomp and circumstance of the entire production was impressive and well organized.

I want to note again that I appreciate your confidence in me as your State Representative.  I am thankful for the honor and privilege of representing approximately 108,000 Illinois citizens.  The weight of responsibility is one I bear proudly, but the gravity of having a single voice for so many citizens is humbling, and I want to reiterate my gratitude for your support in electing me your Representative.

I realize I cannot always vote to make everyone in the 89th district happy, but I can assure you, I consider each and every bill that comes before the House with an open mind and evaluate the positive and negative impacts that will occur in our communities.  Even the legislation that passes unanimously must be given heavy scrutiny to ensure new laws will benefit our state, our communities, and our people.

I’m excited to say that I think better times are in store for our state: our new Governor, Bruce Rauner, was sworn in on Monday, and the tone of this first week of the 99th General Assembly was one of bipartisanship.  Governor Rauner has the business acumen, intellect, and compassion to lead our State back to prosperous times.  He has the ability to reach across party lines and take a stand for the people of our State.  I had dinner with him on Wednesday night and had great conversation, and while we both agree very tough decisions lie ahead, I believe in his leadership and in his vision for our great State.  I look forward to working closely with Governor Rauner to ensure Illinois moves aggressively forward down a path to prosperity for all the people of Illinois.

The beginning of a new session is a fresh start to introduce new legislation, and while there are many more steps until we are successful, I’d like to outline two legislative priorities for 2015. While pension reform, the budget deficit, and a capital plan to renew our infrastructure are always first and our top priorities, these topics are so broad that I will wait until I can outline them in detail for you in a future column.

I will be introducing legislation to improve our education system and to allow a greater pool of teaching talent into the State.  Currently, new teachers who earned their college degree out-of-state have an exceptionally difficult time getting licensed in the State of Illinois to teach our children.  The current model hinders the ability of rural school districts like the ones in our area to recruit and fill positions because, unintentionally, we limit the number of available teachers here in Illinois.

The current law is a prime example of the law of unintended consequences: the legislature and the Board of Education have implemented seemingly good policies that negatively impact our community.  I’ve listened to too many testimonials from current teachers, principals, and superintendents that we can’t find chemistry or agri-business teachers for our children.  These are not the only examples, but they speak to a problem I hope to solve with bipartisan support.  I will be reaching across the aisle to move this forward and assist our local education leaders in providing a quality education to our children.

The second piece of legislation I plan to introduce will be photo identification for public assistance programs.  I believe in a strong safety net to assist the most impoverished in our cities, and I also believe in the good nature and hard work of people.  Call me foolish, but as a small business owner, I know people appreciate and feel valued when they have a career and an opportunity to better themselves.  Until we can pass a pro-jobs agenda that will help every single able-bodied person in our state to find employment, those who are receiving financial aid, housing, and food provisions from the State of Illinois should be issued a card with photo identification.
I see this as a two-fold measure.  It will first provide an additional state-issued form of identification for those in need of public assistance, similar to a state ID card, but with safety-net benefits.  It will also reduce fraud.  Without a strict control on who uses the card, how can we in good faith allot money to a debit card that could be stolen, sold or used by others? As a good steward of your tax money, the State cannot allow welfare fraud to happen.  The system is set up to assist people back to their feet, and I refuse to let those most vulnerable succumb to the villains that would abuse the system.

As I write this week about moving the state forward I am reminded of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr., whom we honor this Monday.  Dr. King said “If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.
I wrote a column recently on Illinois’ Secure Choice Savings Plan and received some negative feedback.  While I may not agree with the newly-minted retirement plan, I am thankful for freedom of speech and am glad we live in a country where we are allowed to have our own opinions.  I encourage the discussion fostered by differing opinions.

I would like to continue the conversation on the Secure Choice Savings Plan by offering some more perspective on some of the arguments that have been used in favor of the plan.

One argument for the program is that it encourages personal responsibility.  While I understand that it is imperative for Americans to start doing a better job of saving for retirement, a bill that requires businesses to participate and automatically opts employees in unless they choose to opt out does not encourage personal responsibility.  Instead, it increases the responsibilities of government and the dependence of the people on the government to make their decisions for them.  If we were really trying to encourage personal responsibility, we would teach our people about the importance of saving for retirement, and we would introduce them to financial firms that already do a good job of investing retirement funds in the right places (and have lower administration fees, I might add).  One caveat from this point—if you think the average Illinoisan’s saving habits are dismal, just look at Illinois’ saving habits.  The state can’t even save enough to adequately fund public employee pensions.  Before it starts sticking its fingers in private sector savings, it should start managing its own finances more responsibly.

Another argument in favor of the program is that it gives small businesses a competitive edge. The program does allow small businesses who can’t afford the costs of 401Ks to compete with larger businesses that can offer comprehensive benefit packages.  The Secure Choice Savings Plan does not, however, match employee contributions like larger businesses’ 401K plans, so, essentially, this plan is no different than a savings plan employees without 401Ks could find through private-sector financial firms.  Additionally, these small businesses, many of whom are already overwhelmed by government regulation, will “have to spend time and effort to set up and implement [the plan],” according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses.  The NFIB also states that “any mandate that would add complexity and disrupt these [small business’s] efficiency and productivity is very troublesome and unwise.”  Small businesses may also be “considered plan fiduciaries and would be subject to the same compliance laws, associated costs and liabilities as the state,” says the NFIB, implying that if an employee feels fiduciary obligations are not being met, he could sue the state and his employer.

Proponents of the Secure Choice Savings Plan also say that the state of Illinois will not control the retirement plan, but I beg to differ.  The fund will be managed by a seven-member board which will consist of the state treasurer, the state comptroller, the Office of Management and Budget director, and four additional gubernatorial appointees who can be hired and fired “based on political considerations,” according to the Illinois Policy Institute.  The board is essentially controlled by whoever controls the state of Illinois.

One final argument for the Secure Choice Savings Plan that I would like you to consider is that it will cost the taxpayer nothing.  First of all, what law passed by the government of Illinois in recent years has really cost taxpayers nothing? And secondly, while the Office of Management and Budget’s note on the bill “indicates no fiscal impact on the theory that private interests or the federal government” will fund the $15 million to $20 million startup costs, according to the Illinois Policy Institute, there is no guarantee that funds will not be appropriated from the state’s general fund and, in fact, the bill allows for the program to be funded by the state, if necessary. So yes, this bill may not cost the taxpayer a penny if full federal or private funding comes through.  But if it doesn’t, we’ll be out another $20 million, and I honestly can’t remember the last time the state paid back a debt to its taxpayers in full.  Don’t we still owe the pension funds $110 billion and still counting?

Ronald Reagan once said that “government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.”  I firmly believe the Secure Choice Savings Plan is an instance of government going beyond its limits in an effort to protect the people of Illinois from their ability to choose to save or to not save for retirement.

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.
In a few days, I’ll be heading back to Springfield for a special session called by Governor Quinn. The Governor wants the General Assembly to pass legislation to allow for a special election to replace Comptroller Topinka.  Here’s a little background: when Comptroller Topinka passed in December, Governor Quinn wanted the authority to appoint a person to finish off Comptroller Topinka’s current term and to replace her for the coming term.  When it was determined he did not have that authority but was only given power to appoint a person to finish off the current term, he decided a special session was in order so he could at least have some control over the fate of the comptroller position.

And now for the facts: my fellow Republican State Representative Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley) said in an article he wrote for the Elburn Herald that this special session will cost the state around $50,000—money that could be better spent elsewhere and that for sure doesn’t need to be spent on a special session.  The proposed special election for comptroller would not happen until November 2016 in our next statewide election, so there isn’t an urgent need to do anything immediately.  Everything that could be done on January 8 can also be done when the General Assembly is called for our 99th Session after inauguration.

 In addition, the proposed special election will be unconstitutional—the constitution calls for vacancies to be filled by the governor’s appointment.  The General Assembly is not authorized, according to a statement from the House and Senate Republican Leaders, “to order a special election to fill a vacancy or replace a person who is appointed to fill a vacancy.” If the General Assembly passes a special election bill, the state will likely face litigation on the constitutionality of the bill.  The only way around litigation is to create a well-thought-out constitutional amendment and to allow voters to vote on it in 2016.

You may have heard the old proverb “haste makes waste,” or maybe you like William Shakespeare’s fancier version of the proverb from Romeo and Juliet: “wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.” In this case, both sayings hold true—the Governor’s haste to push through legislation creates an initial waste of $50,000 or more dollars.  On top of that, we’ll have potential litigation costs and perhaps the intangible cost of poorly-planned legislation.  All of these costs could be avoided if we simply waited a few more weeks to begin the process of creating and drafting legislation or a possible constitutional amendment.  Unless of course there is a hidden agenda of other legislation waiting to surface.  Stay tuned……  

As always, you can reach me or Sally at 815/232-0774 or email us at repstewart@gmail.com. You can also visit my website at www.repbrianstewart.com or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.