Democratic candidates for the 7th District Illinois state Senate seat participated in a town hall-style debate Jan. 6 at Sulzer Regional Library, 4455 N. Lincoln.
For over an hour the candidates, incumbent Heather Steans and challenger Jim Madigan answered prepared questions before an audience numbering more than 100 people.
Issues ranged from those of national importance, such as healthcare and the economy, to local ones, including Illinois' public-pension system and the possibility of same-sex marriage in the state.
While Steans and Madigan share many of the same ideas about Illinois governance in general, they also differ on plenty of specific items. And it was clear that both were eager to flex their political chops to establish credibility and trust.
Steans leveraged her experience, making it clear that she had a unique vantage point to understand the requirements of the job. Madigan, on the other hand, capitalized on voters' frustration with "politics as usual in Illinois" and the need for political reform.
In a tit-for-tat fashion, the candidates slugged through the finer points of issues thatto the naked political eyewould have otherwise seemed homogeneous. Here are notable highlights, in the candidates' own words:
How will you deal with our state's huge public pension problem?
Madigan: Our public pension system is a mess; radically underfunded, a huge debt. One of the things that has contributed to the debt of our state are the bonds that [ former ] Gov. Blagojevich floated for that pension system that was underfunded. We have to take a hard look at raising the retirement age.
I'd also promote that state legislators no longer be eligible for public pensions. We do not have term limits in Illinois, and that means that folks have an incentive to get in there and stay in there ( as a member of the General Assembly ) as long as they can. The incentive comes from the lucrative pension system that rewards them for every year they remain ( in office ) . This includes the former state senator ( Carol Ronen ) who sat in this district, who was supposed to retire with a $60K pension. Instead she took a job with the Blagojevich administration for two months, and now gets an additional $38K every year of your tax money, tax-free, under Illinois ( law ) for the rest of her life. I think that Sen. Steans' decision to allow former Sen. Ronen to play such a significant role in her campaignto chair her campaign in 2008is a mistake. It's a mistake because we need to show that our legislators have credibility on the issue of pension reform, or else no one is going to believe us when we say we're going to try to fix it.
Steans: Our unfunded pension liability is almost $80 billion at this point. We've been borrowing our way through this for way too many years. I voted against the pension obligation notes this year because of that. It's not something that's sustainable, whatsoever. While it's very hard to change the constitutions for current employeesand I would not want to do thatI do think that we have to look at reforming pension benefits for folks who have not yet been hired by the state.
Yes, we need to raise the retirement age. We also need to average what the pension is that one gets paid out over a longer number of years for one's final years of service so that we can prevent those drainage of bump-ups during one's final years of service. We've go to stop the abuses. There's been [ a lot ] of double-dipping going on where people are collecting pensions on two different jobs. These are all things I'm on the record for, and I strongly believe in instituting these changes in Springfield. The bottom line is that we can't possibly expect folks to pay more taxes until we do things like reform the pension system.
With respect to Senate Bill ( SB ) 2468, the Equal Marriage Act, which Sen. Steans recently introduced, what strategy do you have that might help us have gay marriage in Illinois?
Steans: I've got a great bill number for it: "2-4-6-8, we need equal marriage in this state!" I think that where we need to be in Illinois is that we need to have full, equal marriage ( rights ) for all of our residents. On the timing of this … as you know, Rep. Greg Harris has been the sponsor of equal marriage and the civil-unions bill. I asked him if it would be helpful now to have an equal-marriage bill in the senate. His answer was "Yes."
I'm going to be working closely with him on a strategy of how to proceed with getting to full, equal marriage. Now, we may have to first go to civil unions as a step towards equal marriage, but clearly we need to have a goal, ultimately, of getting equal marriage. Having a bill in the House ( for equal marriage ) has never undermined our work on civil unions, and having a bill in the Senate, certainly, will not do that either. On that, I am very resentful of any implications otherwise.
Madigan: For the past two years there has been a civil-unions bill that was introduced in the Illinois House. That bill has gone through a committee hearing. It has forced legislators to listen to the needs of same-sex couples throughout our state. And, for those two years when Sen. Steans has been in office, the civil-unions bill has not been introduced into the senate. The House took up the Senate billwhich was different alreadygutted it after it had been passed on different terms by the Senate, which means that bill is notwas notalive in the Senate for two years. And, unfortunately, when faced with that fact and the prospect of a gay challenger, I think the senator tried to move. Now, I applaud the senator for coming to the right conclusion. Obviously, I think marriage equality is important and that all our legislators should understand that. But, the "2-4-6-8" rhyme I would ask is, 'why is this coming so late?' that's what rhymes with eight. And, after two years, it is coming pretty late. That civil-unions bill has been waiting in the House for someone in the Senate to take it and run with it, not to wait for Greg Harris' permission to do so. It's been waiting for someone to exercise leadership and get it done.
Steans: I'd like to comment on Jim's statement that there isn't a civil-unions bill in the Senate. On the contrary, there is a sponsor for the civil-unions bill in the Senate. His name is Sen. Dave Koehler. He is a minister from Peoria. He has a daughter who is a lesbian, and he's an incredibly strong advocate. I think he would be very saddened to hear that they ( the electorate ) don't have an advocate in the Senate. He is going to be the sponsor of it when it comes from the House. He had it in the Senate until the decision was to have it go to the House because the House is going to be harder chamber in which to get civil unions passed.
The reason Rep. Greg Harris hasn't gotten them out of the House is because he doesn't have the votes to do so. Now, I agree with Jim that this is not a game. We're talking about real peoples' live here. People deserve full, equal marriage. This is a civil-rights issue, period. I'm looking forward to making sure we get this done.
For more information on these candidates and their positions' on other issues log on to www.heathersteans.com and www.jimmadigan.com .