Editor's note: The News-Gazette asked candidates to answer questions regarding themselves and the office they seek.
Name: John Christian Bambenek
Home Address: 715 Erin Drive, Champaign, IL 61822
Education: B.A. in Physics and Astronomy, Minor in Mathematics from the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign
Non-degree graduate study in law, economics and philosophy at the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign
Completing MA in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville
1) What should the Legislature do to resolve the enormous pension funding shortfall? Do you believe lawmakers can constitutionally reduce pension benefits? Can some of the pension costs be shared with local governments? Are there any other methods of addressing this problem?
Pension benefits already earned (i.e. credits in the system) are protected and would take an extreme collection of events before they could be reduced (i.e. complete state insolvency). Benefits earned going forward can be changed. The chief source of the funding shortfall has been the Legislature not contributing what was known to be needed and using the money on other issues. Whatever reform is passed must require sound accounting of pension liabilities and a non-discretionary
contribution of the full actuarial cost of pension benefits as they are earned. Pension benefits of retirees and those about to retiree should not be modified, but those still working may have to see their retirement system modified so that it is sustainable. Shifting the costs (and the liability) to local school systems only really deals with who pays the bill. The funding shortfall should remain a liability of the state even if future benefits are paid for by the local school
districts as they were until the early 90s. However, I would support no shifting of costs to school districts without hard property tax caps and a discussion of the overall structure of school funding where Chicago can get 40 percent of school funding while only having 20 percent of the public school students.
2) Do you think the state income tax increase passed in 2011 should remain in full effect, or should it be reduced, as scheduled, in 2015? Why or why not?
I don't think the tax hike should have been passed in the first place. After years of grossly overspending beyond the money the state had available Illinois found itself in debt. The problem wasn't that the taxpayers didn't pony up enough money to bankroll Blagojevich's excess. The tax increase was passed with the promise that it was temporary and I believe the state should keeps its promises. Hard decisions needs to be made now so that when the tax increase expires we do not return to those same budget deficits. To date, that work has not be done which indicates to me the inherent dishonesty of the "temporary tax hike." Illinois has a spending problem and it needs to clamp down on the systemic corruption up and down the system.
3) What more can be done to draw down the enormous backlog of bills (aside from pension obligations) that must be paid?
Ultimately the only way you pay off your credit cards after you have maxed them out is to do some overtime and live beneath your means. The state of Illinois needs to spend less than it takes in instead of looking at expected revenues as a spending target. At least $3 billion per year should be set aside for past due bills and then other debts that have incurred over years of fiscal mismanagement.
4) Are more Medicaid spending cuts needed than those enacted in the last two years?
Yes, Medicaid (and pensions) are the two biggest drivers of the state budget and if Medicaid is not brought to sustainable levels it will push out other key parts of state spending such as corrections, education and public safety.
First we need to do something about the high cost of practicing medicine in Illinois which directly relates to the high cost of health care and insurance in Illinois. We consistently have one of the highest costs of any other state when it comes to health care regardless of how someone pays for it. Part of that is medical malpractice reform (and the legal environment in general), part is the over-regulation of health care and insurance (for instance, the Hospital Facilities and Planning Board should be abolished in its entirety) and part is the high amount of medical bills that are written off for non-payment (of which Medicaid pays a part).
Then we need to seriously consider what services are essential to perform and ensure those go only to Illinois citizens who are eligible for those services.
5) What areas of state government need to endure more budget cuts than they have thus far?
All of them. There are obvious areas of abuse (state agencies that have more cars than employees, the fleet of aircraft that state maintains, almost anything involving CMS) but the time has come when we stop looking at the budget in terms of "cuts". We need to adopt zero-based budgeting which means we start from zero and then strategically target which services and functions the state must perform and then organize those services in the most cost-effective way possible. We need to fundamentally rethink and restructure government, adopt electronic services wherever possible (there are areas of state government that still cut paper checks) and look at every program. Any program that doesn't produce results should be cut ("Grow your Own Teachers" at a cost of almost $700,000 per teacher, for instance).
6) Do you favor limiting the disposal of PCBs and chemical wastes at the Clinton landfill? If so, what can the Illinois Legislature do to restrict that disposal?
PCBs should not be disposed of on or near water supplies unless they can proven to be absolutely 100 percent safe. The Illinois Legislature and U.S. government have created regulatory bodies that will do those studies already, so the process is working itself out as designed. The Legislature should wait until those experts come back with their results before further action but I would not support disposal of PCBs on or near water supplies without a 100 percent degree of assurance of its safety, including an explanation as to why the landfill in Clinton is the ideal site compared to other places around the state that are not located near water sources.
7) As a cost-saving measure, does the Legislature need to act to reduce the number of school districts in the state?
I think there is a very distinctive difference between consolidating school districts in the suburbs of Chicago and rural school districts. In some cases that consolidation might cost money, not save it. Though, in general, I support making it plausible for citizens of a taxing body to either dissolve or consolidate units of local government as they see fit. Illinois has more units of local government than any other state in the union, all with property tax authority, and we need to begin the process to whittle that down and I believe that begins with citizens having the ability to modify the forms of government (or dissolve where appropriate) that they live under.
8) Do you think Illinois state government is inherently corrupt? If so, what can be done?
Evil people are attracted to money and power. Government has both and as such will always attract unsavory types. A constitution, at its very core, should restrict government from being corrupt. However, our state Constitution was not written to restrict government but to enable it. If there were real checks and balances, Blagojevich would not have been able to get away with as much as he did for as long as he did. A constitution should protect citizens from their government. Our state Constitution was written to protect government from its citizens.
In my book, "Illinois Deserves Better," I write about some of the constitutional cures we can enact to help turn that around. Term limits would be a start because it provides the opportunity for change. Redistricting reform is more essential than most people realize because most legislators have no real fear of losing an election because of the way districts are drawn. Voters have only one real power and that is the power to throw the bums out. If districts are so uncompetitive as they are, voters simply lose the one real political power they have.
Beyond constitutional fixes, we need real transparency. Once efforts began to show all salary and pension information, we found people drawing pensions who had no real government service (one such pensioner only substitute taught for one day but used his union salary and years of service to "earn" a six-figure pension). Four of the top 100 pensions in the state of Illinois go to people who haven't served in government. Transparency provides the tools for the media and voters to hold officials accountable.
Public corruption laws need to be strengthened allowing both prosecutors and concerned citizens to directly tackle and remedy corruption. FOIA violations have no real penalties. Open Meetings Act violations can be criminal but no prosecutions have been had over the OMA since the 1970s. Prosecutors are severely hamstrung by laws that don't let them pursue cases against public officials. Even then, state's attorneys are politicians, too, so there needs to be a means for the public to act even when their prosecutor or attorney general refuses to do so. Liberalizing access to the courts for "qui tam" cases so citizens can claw back ill-gotten public funds are needed.
9) Are there reforms or changes needed in Illinois' tax structure that should be enacted to bring in more revenue?
One of the fundamental problems with the tax code is its complexity and special targeted deals. Our tax code should be no more than three pages and our taxes should be flat, broad and low. The purpose of this shouldn't be to bring in more revenue, it should be to create a competitive business climate and a fair system for working families.
10) Are you concerned about the potential use of hydraulic fracturing in Illinois? Should the practice be banned in Illinois, or limited in some way?
At a time when unemployment is high, it is unconscionable that Illinois is standing in the way of jobs that can be immediately created. No society ever found prosperity without exploiting its natural resources. Regulations to ensure that such processes are safe are needed but fracking has been done for decades already in a safe manner and without real scientific evidence that it has side-effects that cannot be managed, the state should get out of the way so these jobs can be created.
11) What can the Legislature do to limit tuition increases at public universities and should the Legislature act to limit tuition increases?
I believe the fundamental problem lies with the governance structure at the University of Illinois. As the Category I scandal showed, the Board of Trustees, which is appointed by the governor, is too close to the political structure of the state and has shown itself unable to reform the university. When failed UI President Michael Hogan gets a "golden parachute" to become the highest paid faculty member at the University of Illinois-Springfield with his ridiculous settlement, we have an eye as to what the problem is. In recent years, the faculty has had failed administrators foisted on them when they should have been terminated outright. I believe we have a glut of highly paid administrators who do little to advance the teaching and research mission of the university.
We need to move back to direct election of University of Illinois trustees whose elections will be governed on their ability to manage the university and keep tuition low. When we have a board that is accountable to the public, we will have a university that will reverse its trend of massive tuition hikes and overhead costs.
12) Do you favor expanding gambling in Illinois, including casinos in Chicago and Danville? How about slot machines at racetracks?
I think a city-owned casino is inherently problematic from a public policy standpoint. Government should never be in the business of directly competing with private enterprise.
That said, the reason for supporting expanded gambling has usually been cited as economic development. My chief reason for running and being involved in politics is concern for my children's future and I don't think the jobs we need to be creating for them is as cocktail waitresses or bouncers. If casinos were successful economic development tools, Peoria, Elgin and Metro East would not continue to face the problems they do even after their casinos have been built. Gambling is the last refuge of failed economic policies.
13) What can be done to lower workers compensation costs in Illinois?
Illinois needs to enact a law that requires that the workplace is the primary cause of the injury before a claim can be awarded. Very little changed with the recent workers compensation "reform" package but requiring workers compensation claims need to be related to an actual workplace injury is common sense. The other driver is Illinois' legal climate which awards significant sums for insignificant harms which means a broader push for lawsuit reform needs to be undertaken as well.
14) Would you favor a conceal-carry law in Illinois? If so, what sort of public safety provisions should be part of the legislation?
I believe concealed carry is required by the Second Amendment (right to keep and bear arms) and it is time that Illinois follows the lead of the other 49 states to pass some law that allows residents to enjoy their rights under the U.S. Constitution. I believe a simple permit with background check and firearms safety class, similar to what is in place in many other states, is sufficient.