Democrat and Republican representatives debate budget

State Rep. Maurice A. West II (left), a Democrat from Illinois’ 67th District, stands up to deliver his opening statement beside his colleague Rep. Lance Yednock, D-76, on Monday at the Illinois bipartisan budget debate.

By Dan Doren

DeKALB — Bipartisan collaboration was on the lips of all four state representatives who spoke at the Illinois bipartisan budget debate.

The debate took place from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday in the University Suite at the Holmes Student Center.

At the debate were Republicans Jeff Keicher and Keith Wheeler and Democrats Lance Yednock and Maurice A. West II. Each representative was given three to five minutes to make an opening statement and one to two minutes to respond to colleagues.

This was followed by a Q&A session. The questions were submitted in a basket by audience members just before the debate and read aloud by moderator Scot Schraufnagel, chair of the political science department.

The debate comes four months after Gov. JB Pritzker signed the $40 billion state budget into law for the current fiscal year, which began July 1 and will end June 30.

The budget includes an increase of more than $150 million for higher education, additional funding for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and pay increases for state legislators of about $1,600 each.

Keicher said in his opening statement that, despite Democrats having a 74-44 supermajority in the Illinois House of Representatives, both parties were able to make compromises on budget priorities during the spring session.

“What I think you saw reflected this session was a good amount of bipartisan collaboration in solving some of the most critical and important issues that Illinois is facing right now,” he said.

Yednock listed what he considered to be the most noteworthy parts of the budget – including an additional $375 million in K-12 education funding and an additional $170 million for child care services – and attributed its balance to the dedication and bipartisanship of the House.

“I think the most important thing to recognize is that we have a balanced budget in the state of Illinois for the first time in, I believe, 18 years,” he said. “It’s recognizing our commitment to funding and essential services, and it’s working across party lines.”

Wheeler, who is the assistant House Republican leader, said what Illinoisans see in the media about unpleasant political discourse isn’t always the reality in the Illinois House.

“Collaboration is, to me, the key to how we actually want to govern,” he said.

Wheeler said he eventually supported and defended a bill Yednock proposed at the beginning of session that he viewed unfavorably at first.

West, one of 23 new members of the House this year, said new members are ranked in order of last name, which placed him in a seat on the Republican side of the aisle.

West said this has allowed him to talk more with his Republican colleagues and establish the grounds for bipartisan collaboration.

“Bipartisanship is exactly what we need in our state,” he said. “It bothered me that we had a supermajority because we did not lead as the majority; we bullied.”

One of House Republicans’ priorities toward the end of May was pushing through tax incentives for data centers, facilities that house information technology equipment and store and manage digital data for companies.

Keicher said this was to promote “economic opportunity,” while noting that Iowa has recently seen an $800 million investment in a data center by a company that received tax incentives to locate its operations there.

“Imagine what $800 million could do for the DeKalb area,” he said. “Imagine the jobs that it would create.”

Wheeler echoed this sentiment of economic opportunity in his opening statement.

“We were receiving more money as a state than we originally expected,” he said. “What’s the key to that? Economic growth. The way we can grow our economy gives us more opportunities to achieve more priorities.”

Wheeler mentioned how he feels the reinstatement of the Manufacturer’s Purchase Credit, an incentive for manufacturing companies to use tax on qualifying personal property purchases, will be instrumental for growing manufacturing jobs in Illinois.

[It’s] not just the construction side of it and the maintenance of it but all the other parts that go along with it,” he said. “That’s huge.”

West said he voted for the budget, in part, because more money would be put toward MAP grants and career and technical education, which he called his “passion.”

West said he objected to pay increases for representatives because the timing was too soon, as the General Assembly had only recently ended its budget impasse, which lasted 793 days from 2015 to 2017, and other Illinoisans would be taking a pay cut as a result.

“The time is not right for legislators to get a pay increase,” he said. “We are just now circulating money … [and] we have all this stuff we need to do for the state.”

West said he filed a bill that would give Illinois legislators the choice to opt out of the pay increase and put those funds toward the pension liability.

“I’m hoping … I can move this bill, come veto session,” he said. “I can go to leadership and say, ‘Hey, I voted for your budget; at least let me have this.’”

During the Q&A segment, the representatives were asked about higher education, Pritzker’s Medicaid expansion efforts and legalized sports gambling.

Keicher and West, who both serve on the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, said they spent 22 hours looking for unnecessary spending to cut before the final bill made its way to Pritzker.

Keicher said this time was all for naught when the committee decided to restore all those cuts.

“[Those cuts] were literally wiped out in … 15-20 minutes, tops,” he said. “That’s the mentality we need to break in Springfield.”

West described the restoration of those cuts as “very unfortunate” and referenced the increase in state funding for SIU’s Daily Egyptian newspaper, which Keicher said receives $60,000 a year.

“It was as if the 22 hours made us too tired,” West said. “That means the [Daily] Egyptian newspaper got a 5% increase. For what?”

Yednock brought up the right-versus-privilege challenge in the discussion of expanding health care, and Wheeler said sports gambling will not be truly legal until the Illinois Gaming Board puts new rules in place, despite the Sports Wagering Act passing in June.

During the response period, none of the representatives had any objection to what others said in their opening statements.

Wheeler and Yednock took the time allotted for responses to explain how the House operates, particularly in regard to bill sponsorships and party-line voting.

The debate was sponsored by the School of Public and Global Affairs, the Department of Political Science and the Student Association.