Many of you have heard the old story about Benjamin Franklin. Dr. James McHenry, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Maryland serves as the quotes’ source. McHenry wrote, “A lady asked Dr. Franklin, ‘Well, Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it.’” The mid-term elections are underway, and Election Day is November 6th.

We are blessed to live in a country where we get to choose our leaders. “We the people” have an opportunity to “keep” our republic. We have been entrusted with a sacred duty. We are the guardians of liberty. And it’s up to us to defend it.

We certainly may not have survived as a nation without the leadership of George Washington as our country’s first President. The first national government under the Articles of Confederation was widely perceived as an abject failure, and for a new government to survive, it was widely accepted that General Washington would have to return to public life.

I was sworn in as your State Representative in the 89th District on October 3rd, 2013. My first public comments were to thank my family, my friends, and Representative Jim Sacia who supported me. Then I spoke about our state’s pension crisis, saying, “The state’s pension debt is growing by the millions each day. Those dollars could be used to fund education, senior services, and other important areas in the State budget. We must tackle this problem and protect retirees before the system is in total disarray.”

The legislature passed Senate Bill 1 to reform pensions that December, and as you recall I voted. “No”. I was convinced then, as I am today, that pension reform in Illinois must start with an amendment to the Illinois Constitution. It turns out that the Illinois State Supreme Court agreed with me when it declared SB1 unconstitutional in 2015. The reason is because Article VIII Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution says, “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

The pension crisis has only grown worse, to the tune of $130 billion. We already know the Chicago machine’s plan. They’ve done the math on what it will take to pay our current bill backlog and pension debts. It means another income tax increase, starting with people earning $7500 a year.

You are already paying more taxes to state and local governments than families in any other state in the country. Our income taxes were hiked just last year. And our property taxes are punitive. Many of us know people who have moved, or are thinking about moving, because their property taxes are too high.

It was Roy Disney who said, “It’s not hard to make decisions once we know what our values are.” My values are simple. We simply cannot raise taxes on working families and retirees before making commitments to reform state spending and solve our pension crisis.

Let me explain. Right now, pension costs amount to 25 percent of the state budget, more than any other state and almost double the national average! In 1995, the pension deficit was $20 billion. As I mention above, today’s unfunded pension liability is $130 billion and growing. Take education related pension costs as an example. The Illinois Policy Institute tells us that by “2025, the state will spend more of its education budget on teacher pensions than it will in the classroom.”

I understand these numbers are astonishing. Identifying there is a pension crisis in no way diminishes the respect all of us have for our state and local government employees. No one is saying they do not deserve a pension. We are saying that the system as it stands today cannot stand much longer.

Three factors have contributed to the crisis. The state has been shorting pension payments for decades. Crain’s Chicago Business reported that “underpayments between 1985 and 2012 totaled $41.2 billion.” Both Republican and Democrat governors contributed to the problem, the common denominator – the Chicago machine.

The second factor is the built in increases. Starting in 1989, cost of living increases were set at 3% and enhanced even more in the late 1990’s. According to the Illinois State Supreme Court, once these were passed into law, they became protected by the state constitution and cannot be revoked without a constitutional amendment.

The last factor is the contribution burden. According to the Illinois Policy Institute, Illinois workers contribute less to their retirements than the national average, putting more of the burden on non-government employees.

There is hope. Other states and municipalities have managed to solve their pension crises. We can too. The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reported in its Chicago Fed Letter, No. 398 about a pension conference it sponsored with the Civic Federation earlier this year. Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed spoke about how his administration addressed Atlanta’s underfunded pensions. Instead of kicking the can down the road, Reed chose to address the problem head on because the pension costs were “threatening to crowd out public services”.

The President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, Bryan Jeffries, shared how his organization worked with Arizona state legislators to solve their pension crisis. “His group focused on educating firefighters across the state about pension issues and eventually helped develop and pass both pension reform legislation and an amendment to the Arizona Constitution that permitted the benefit reforms to be implemented.”

Solutions are possible. They will require all sides to work together until we get it done. I look forward to the challenge.
I know I’ve quoted him in the past, and I think it’s appropriate to quote him again. I agree with George Washington who wrote, “In a free republican government, you cannot restrain the voice of the multitude.” For a government to be successful we need legislators who are thoughtful, are willing to stick to their guns when it makes sense, and work to accomplish the will of the people.

That is why I conducted the End of Session Survey this past August. If I have said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. Leadership is better when it is better informed. I will continue to conduct surveys and work with staff to improve the quality of the surveys in the future. I want to know what you think. I want to know what is important to you. And I want to continue a dialogue so I can make better decisions for us.

Almost 1,000 of you returned the survey in the mail or through my website. Thank you. The survey asked which were the most serious challenges facing Illinois - education funding, gun violence, transportation and infrastructure, environmental protection, health care costs, or high taxes. More than half of your responses said high taxes was our most serious challenge.

I can certainly understand why so many of you are concerned about high taxes. Illinois families pay more taxes than families in any other state in the country. There are people who think you should pay more taxes without reforming government in any way whatsoever. I think those people are wrong. We need to reform Springfield’s spending, and put a stop to government corruption before asking working families to pay more taxes.

The next six questions of the survey addressed various issues. A few responses stood out. For example, ninety-two percent of you think that we should take the legislative map-drawing process out of the hands of politicians! Given the autocratic rule we have seen by the Chicago machine, controlling our state for the past three decades, it’s easy to understand why so many of us agree that one way to fight this corruption is to end gerrymandering.

Progressive taxes were next on the list. Over eighty-three percent of you said you opposed a progressive income tax if it would raise taxes on the middle class. There are folks who are trying to convince you that changing our tax system would benefit working families and only tax the “rich”. However, they want you to blindly support the change without telling you exactly what the tax rates will be and who they will affect. For those who don’t remember, the only progressive tax bill that has been filed is House Bill 3522, which starts raising income taxes on families earning $7,500 a year, and increases them again for families earning more than $15,000 a year. The legislator who filed that bill included a letter to the remaining 117 members of the House of Representatives explaining how the only way to pay our current debts and pension obligations was through that tax bill, and included a calculator for us to check his math.

Seventy-eight percent of you are opposed to the proposal by the Chicago Fed to increase your property taxes for the next 30 years to pay down pension debt. This is easy to understand. I took a phone call from a gentleman just the other day telling me about how high his property taxes are compared to similar properties in Minnesota.

Also, many of your comments on the question expressed distrust that the state would spend the money to pay down the pension debt. After all, wasn’t that what the old 2011 tax increase was for?

One question, Question 7, we refined from last year’s survey. Last year, we asked about government consolidation and a significant majority of you were in favor of it. This year, you were asked if you favored consolidating Townships or Township Road Districts without first providing data proving that the consolidation would save you money. Seventy-three percent of you said “No.” This makes sense. The survey indicates that taxes are your highest concern. It makes sense that you would want to know if consolidation would save tax dollars.

I relate to the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.” Now there are always people who will disagree with the decisions I’ve made. They will most likely disagree with any decisions I will make. They disagree with the beliefs you and I have. There’s no pleasing these people, even after presenting the facts.

However, we can remember that what unites us is far greater than anything that divides us. With that in mind, I would like to take a moment and note the passing of a long-time friend, Kenneth “Pat” Patrick Martin, who I always called, “K. Patrick”. I knew him for many years both personally and professionally, since I served as a Freeport Alderman with his wife, Mickey Martin. I had the privilege of honoring their daughter, Kelly, who was one of Time Magazine’s People of the Year in 2017 for her bravery in speaking out against sexual harassment.

K. Patrick was active in our community, committed to making Freeport a better place for all of us. He was also a founding member and dedicated to the Highland Chapter of Pheasants Forever and to the Illinois State Council of Pheasants Forever for the past 35 years. He was a great man and will be missed.
Some of you remember Paul Harvey. For those who don’t know, he was a radio broadcaster on ABC’s radio networks from 1952 until 2008. He was most famously known for his segment called, The Rest of the Story.

Everyone has opinions. In today’s world, full of posts and tweets and grams, forming an opinion is easy. With the inception of the internet, we have more information at our fingertips than any generation ever had before. More often than not, what we need is perspective. More information isn’t always better. We need to get the right information to help us make the right decisions. We need the rest of the story.

It was famous author and management consultant Peter Drucker who said, “Making good decisions is a crucial skill at every level.” He is absolutely right. This especially holds true for our public officials. We pay taxes for public officials, elected and unelected, to make decisions that will impact our lives. Our expectation is that they will make good decisions.

I remember making the decision to start my first business. I remember each choice I had to make, and how much I was asking, of my family, my future employees, and myself. While my businesses have grown, I continue to approach every decision with the same care and precision.

That is how I make decisions as your State Representative as well. I am responsible for approximately 108,000 people in the 89th District. When I make a decision to vote for or against legislation, it’s with you in mind.

An example is Senate Bill 607, which was legislation filed by State Senator Tim Bivins. It was approved by both houses and signed into law last year. 

A common misconception is that SB607 legalized switchblades, making life more dangerous for families in Illinois. I do not agree with that characterization.

A small business, RAT Worx USA, in Mount Morris, IL, manufactures high quality automatic knives – the average retail price for one of their knives is $300. Allowing the sale of the automatic knives that they manufacture right here in the 89th District would help their business. As you know, I believe the best way for Illinois to overcome our financial challenges is through economic growth, and that was an important consideration in supporting SB607.

Another important consideration was the benefit an automatic knife or “spring assisted device” has for society. As a retired Stephenson County Sheriff’s Deputy, I turned to law enforcement and the first responder community for guidance. I learned that these devices are very popular with first responders (police, fire, EMT’s and even the Military”). Imagine if you were in a car accident and your car was on fire. Using an automatic knife, an EMT could cut your seatbelt and begin removing you from the vehicle in less time than it would take to open a standard pocket knife with two hands. Automatic knives save time, and for first responders, saving time means saving lives.

The most important consideration was how much a bill legalizing automatic knives would hurt Illinois families. Ultimately, the process narrowed the bill to only allow the sale of automatic knives to Illinois residents who have been issued a Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) Card by the Illinois State Police. Illinois has strict eligibility rules to obtain a FOID Card. Felony convictions, mental health issues, or a history of domestic violence are among the many disqualifying factors.

It is my belief that the FOID Card requirement to purchase an automatic knife helps protect Illinois families. After that, I also considered the endorsement from first responders and the benefits to a local manufacturer, I then supported the legislation. I would also note that these automatic knives were already being sold for years in your big box and sporting goods stores even though they were technically illegal.

Another example of the process I use in making decisions in Springfield is Senate Bill 2298, the Industrial Hemp Act. When many people hear the word hemp, they think marijuana. Before I supported SB2298, I wanted to make sure what I was endorsing, and whether the benefits outweighed potential risks.

What I learned is that special interests fought to make hemp illegal in 1937 because of a government report suggesting hemp could replace wood pulp to produce paper, and other products. Hemp was also later included in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

It turns out that the plants farmers grow to produce industrial hemp are different from the plants that are grown to produce the marijuana drug. Industrial hemp plants don’t produce enough of the psychoactive chemical THC for drug users to get “high” and produce more cannabidiol (CBD) which also prevents a user from getting “high.”

Former State Representative I. Ron Lawfer made a compelling argument for the benefit cultivating industrial hemp would have for Illinois farmers. Industrial hemp is a crop that can be used to manufacture paper, textiles, paints, insulation, biofuels, animal feed, and biodegradable plastics. I think we can all agree that this crop would help Illinois farmers and rural communities throughout our state.

I hope these examples provide insight into the process I use to make decisions as your State Representative. I will continue to use the same level of discretion and scrutiny in the decisions I make for the 89th District during the veto session this November.

Bandwidth speeds more than double since 2015; Rauner committed to reaching FCC goal of one megabit per second per student

Gov. Bruce Rauner today announced that 96 percent of K-12 school districts in Illinois can access the internet at speeds of 100 kbps per student, a substantial improvement from 71 percent just three years ago. Median bandwidths also have markedly improved, increasing 2.5 times since 2015.

High-speed connectivity ensures that students have access to more digital resources, which in turn expands learning opportunities. By making high-speed internet accessible, educators and students gain the benefits of greater interactivity, collaboration, engagement and personal instruction.

“Our aim is to give every K-12 student in Illinois access to internet speeds on par with the FCC’s goal of one megabit per second per student,” said Rauner. “When this kind of technology is fully integrated in our classrooms, students will advance more rapidly and with much higher odds of success in the 21st century labor market.”

Illinois’ digital advances were reported by the EducationSuperHighway which tracks progress toward K-12 connectivity across the United States. The national nonprofit advocates for upgrading internet access in every public school classroom in America. Rauner is one of four governors committed to reaching the FCC broadband speed goal.

While Illinois has advanced its school digital resources, work remains. EducationSuperHighway says that 407,093 students in 32 school districts across the state still need adequate bandwidth for digital learning. There also are 136 school campuses that lack scalable fiber-optic broadband connections.

The Illinois Classroom Connectivity Initiative<Click Here>, launched by the Rauner administration in 2016, is an effort to ensure that all districts receive the support and funding to close this school broadband gap. The FY19 education budget includes a $17 million Broadband Expansion fund to help cover costs of fiber upgrades for school districts. There is also provision for free technical assistance.

“We commend Gov. Rauner for working toward closing the digital divide in Illinois classrooms,” said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway. “I am pleased that leaders in Illinois have demonstrated their continued commitment to connecting students to vital digital learning opportunities through high-speed internet access.”