Editor's note: The News-Gazette asked candidates to answer questions regarding themselves and the office they seek.
Name: Rob Meister
Address: 1516 W. Springfield Ave. Champaign
Date of Birth: 5/20/1983
Education: Bachelors in Political Science, Minor in Business Management
Illinois State University
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?
I have spent many hours in budget review sessions specifically for the pension shortfall and have been able to deduce several opinions. The first problem is that the same politicians who never put in their agreed portion of the pensions are now running on fixing it. How can we expect the people who caused the problem to suddenly be the best leaders to fix it? Legislators have had numerous opportunities to address this issue but never do so because they are more worried about keeping their job instead of doing their job. I don't believe that legislators have the power to ignore the Constitution or change a contract, but in Illinois ... they will do it anyway. We need new legislators that will be honest about our situation and what is the best solution for it.
After discussions with teachers, like my mother Diane, and other state employees I believe that the best way to get the pension shortfall under control is by reforming the compounding COLA and reviewing caps for the highest paid pensioners. If we allow the COLA to no longer be locked in at 3 percent and reform it to mirror the true cost of living, we could save tens of billions of dollars (estimated at $30 billion over 10 years) from our current debt and use it to pay off loans that are generating high interest payments (estimated to save an additional $20 billion over 10 years). This plan would only affect those making more than $35,000, as some retirees are living on much less than that. Then if we remove or limit the COLA to 1 percent for pensioners making over $200,000 in retirement, we will save an additional $20 to $30 billion over the next decade.
This would save pensioners from huge cuts to their medical benefits, paying much more into their pension, or losing their pensions after a certain age. All of which the current legislators may do after the election is over. I think the remaining unfunded pensions could be shared with local government, but only after placing limits on property tax raises. This way, we as a community can decide what is best for our teachers, firemen and police instead of politicians in Springfield.
Still, the best method for Illinois to fund the pension program and balance its budget is to get our economy growing again. We have to be seen as financially stable and responsible. Businesses will not call Illinois home until we seek out and deal with our corruption problem, limit property tax increases and stop spending more than we have.
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 believe that, with the right leadership, we will be able to reduce the income tax increase over time as planned. After the 66 percent increase, we trusted our legislators to be responsible and balance our budget. Instead, they spent an additional $1 billion, proving once and for all that they have no desire to be responsible with our money.
It also shows us that they feel raising taxes is a better solution for revenue than ending corruption. Illinois losses between $500 million and $1 billion every year through graft and corruption but legislators continue to ignore it. It's time to stop giving these career politicians our vote and stop letting them buy our votes with our own money.
3. What more can be done to draw down the enormous backlog of bills (aside from pension obligations) that must be paid?
Our budgeting and backlog of bills is a much more complicated problem than politicians want us to believe, but it can be done. With three steps, I believe we can get Illinois back to being balanced and prosperous.
1. Show that Illinois can be more business friendly by putting limitations on property tax raises. We should be championing small businesses by providing incentives for growth and employment. Illinois needs to slow the rise of minimum wage and stop forcing young people, specifically minorities, out of the work force. Small businesses generate 74 percent of the jobs in Illinois, but one business is leaving every hour because we continue to overregulate them.
2. Put an end to corruption by reforming our political system. We should create caps for what each campaign can raise and have every dollar of campaign contributions be disclosed. We should consider implementing term limits or limit the power that legislators have. Most importantly, get rid of Mike Madigan. He is not a Democrat, he is not a civil servant, he is a kingpin. Once he loses power as Speaker of the House, everyone will see a cleaner and more efficient Illinois government. Our bills are not getting paid because too much of our money is being stolen.
3. Reduce the size and scope of Illinois government. Illinois has more governmental bodies than states that are far larger. These are often entities with large, unaccounted for budgets that leave too much room for corruption. We need to have a review of each of these departments and see which ones are simply not necessary. Many of these departments already exist in local municipalities and I have more confidence in my community than I do in Illinois government.
4. Are more Medicaid spending cuts needed than those enacted in the last two years?
Cuts, no. Reform, absolutely. An estimated 20 percent of our Medicaid patients are coming from out of state to take advantage of our broken system. We have to be stricter on making sure that only Illinoisans are receiving Illinois tax dollars.
5. What areas of state government need to endure more budget cuts than they have thus far?
I would like to see what a clean and properly managed Illinois could afford. We may not need very many cuts at all. However we have to start being more honest with ourselves.
Illinois politicians are paid a full time salary and benefits for a part time job. They receive pensions, health care, and a per diem for being "civil servants." This creates a very attractive job for the wrong kind of leaders.
We also have many departments in Illinois that are redundant because local cities and municipalities provide the same services. There are an abundance of governmental bodies that overlap in many ways.
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?
I am in favor of limiting the dumping at the Clinton landfill, but I have just begun reviewing the situation. I am confident that we can find a common sense solution to limited disposal.
7. As a cost-saving measure, does the Legislature need to act to reduce the number of school districts in the state?
Yes. My mother was a teacher for 35 years and she has shared with me that school administrations are becoming larger and more expensive every year. This creates top heavy school districts where less money can make it to teachers and students. Reducing the amount of districts would cut back on administrators and bureaucrats, saving the state money and allowing more funds to reach students.
8. Do you think Illinois state government is inherently corrupt? If so, what can be done?
Yes it is, but it is not too late to save it. As listed above, we need to reform our government and political system. To accomplish this we need to take money out of politics.
We need to place caps on what a campaign can raise and spend on an election so that campaigns stop being about who has more money and start being about who has better ideas.
We should consider term limits, even if they are 10 or 12 years instead of the typical eight years. Career politicians, by their very nature, are substandard representatives. They cannot understand or sympathize with the issues that affect everyone outside of Springfield or Washington. By staying in office too long they become prone to corruption and lose the ability to do anything besides be a politician. Finally, with campaigns only able to raise so much money, we should have full disclosure of who is donating to which campaigns. Unfortunately, the only way to get these laws passed is to have a fundamental and radical change in power. Specifically, Mike Madigan and other long term politicians need to be sent packing. They control the money, they control the laws, they are the corruption problem.
9. Are there reforms, changes needed in Illinois' tax structure that should be enacted to bring in more revenue?
Absolutely. Small businesses create sales tax revenue, property tax revenue, jobs, and taxable income. The problem is that in the past Illinois has been so focused on providing tax incentives to large corporations instead of helping small businesses.
If we place limits on minimum wage increases, property tax increases and lower the cost of regulations, Illinois will see a surge in small business startups that we be able to grow and prosper in Illinois.
We need to start using the successful ideas from our neighboring states. They have lower taxes, but higher tax revenue. They provide social services, but still have tax surpluses at the end of every year. They have less business regulations and much lower unemployment. It is not too late for Illinois to admit that other states are run better and get back to being the great state that we should be.
10. Are you concerned about the potential use of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in Illinois? Should the practice be banned in Illinois, or limited in some way?
As technology for fracking continues to improve, it is also becoming safer. The EPA has done studies that show no sign of water or land contamination, but we still do not know the long term effects. We should allow fracking in small, controlled environments until we can be certain that it is a safe way to get resources. At the very least it will
provide jobs and cheaper resources until we can make an educated decision on if it should be used in the future.
11. What can the Legislature do to limit tuition increases at public universities, and should the Legislature act to limit tuition increases?
Universities will have to make a tough decision in the coming years. Tuition rates are increasing exponentially faster than the return the student will receive in income after graduation. This will force universities to decide whether they will be treated like a business or a school. Schools cannot charge any amount for education. It has to be decided and budgeted, based on taxes. They also are exempt from paying most, if not all, taxes.
If the universities would like to raise rates as they currently are, then the state will continue to provide less money. I would like to work with universities to find the best possible solution. If universities do not make this decision for themselves, then the legislatures will most likely place a cap on tuition increases.
12. Do you favor expanded gambling in Illinois, including casinos in Chicago and Danville? How about slot machines at racetracks?
Overall I oppose gambling expansion. The more I have reviewed the cost of gambling socially, the more it does not seem worth it financially. Gambling is very similar to smoking in that the majority of people who participate are in the lower income levels. There is no doubt that the state would increase its revenue, but from whom and at what cost? If all we are doing is taxing lower income citizens, then how long will it be before they need more financial assistance? If Illinois decides to increase gambling, I hope that they are very careful about where they put the casinos and how it will affect the people in that area.
13. What can be done to lower workers compensation costs in Illinois?
One of the problems with oversized governments is that they limit choice. Illinois continues to complicate the employee/employer relationship and take away their choices. Businesses, especially small businesses, should have more freedom with creating their own workers compensation programs and agreements. Many businesses pay an obscene amount of money for workers compensation insurance, but never even use it. Some business owners would even be able to provide health plans for their employees if they were not forced to carry workers compensation insurance.
Illinois needs to limit the amount of money that can be paid out for workers compensation claims. This will bring down the risk attached to claims and make it more affordable. We should also place restrictions on how much a business can be penalized for an accident on the job. We have to remember that small businesses take a big risk to provide jobs and we cannot continue to compound that risk with expensive regulations.
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 would definitely vote in favor of conceal-carry. Illinois is the only state without conceal-carry and we have one of the highest gun crime rates in the country. It makes perfect sense. Criminals and gangs in Illinois know that their victims cannot carry concealed guns, so they have less risk of dealing with an altercation. But we do need to implement conceal-carry safely. Illinois could offer classes on gun safety in order to obtain that license, similar to a driver's license. These courses would provide increased revenue for the state and provide police with the chance to educate the general public on gun safety and police work. Once citizens see how dangerous firearms can be, they will be more careful and respectful of them.