By ROSS BROWN
GIBSON CITY — The 100th Illinois General Assembly is coming to a close Wednesday, bringing an end to divided government in Illinois and ushering in a new government of total Democratic control.
Yet despite the challenges one-party rule in Springfield might bring to the rest of the state, state Rep. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City, believes "the potential for good change is still there in Springfield."
Bennett was on hand for the Gibson Area Chamber of Commerce’s monthly meeting last Thursday at The Sand Trap in Gibson City, where he was presented with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s Champion of Free Enterprise Award, representing state lawmakers who are deemed by the group as the most pro-business leaders in Springfield.
"Not only is Rep. Bennett talking the talk when he’s here with you, but he’s also backing it up in Springfield," said Tyler Diers, director of legislative relations for the statewide organization.
Diers said the Illinois Chamber of Commerce ranked all 177 state legislators throughout the course of the current legislative session, with a vote for the business community being a positive and a vote against the business community being a negative.
Among the positive actions taken by the General Assembly the past two years were a renewed and revamped EDGE (Economic Development for a Growing Economy) tax credit, 5G cell-phone service and procurement reform.
Actions deemed negative by the statewide chamber included voting for a $15 minimum wage —"I can’t imagine what that would do to our small businesses," Diers said — as well as a 32 percent tax hike included in the 2017 annual budget, which was passed and then overridden by both chambers after outgoing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it.
Regulations for websites were also deemed a problem, with Diers saying the rules negatively affect small businesses as only large firms could comply.
Diers described Bennett as an example of somebody who sticks with it both in his district and in legislative chambers.
"Every lawmaker says they’re pro-business," Diers explained. "But the problem oftentimes is they come to local functions and say, ‘I’m for you,’ but when they come to Springfield, their voting record doesn’t reflect that. "(Bennett) not only comes to these events but follows through at the capitol.
"The ratings (are) becoming increasingly partisan. In our view, business issues shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican; they should be for the well-being and health of the state’s economy."
In his acceptance speech, Bennett praised Diers and others at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, saying issues pertaining to small businesses are keys in his district and with his constituents.
"When I talk to people about issues, small business is key," Bennett explained. "If it isn’t the main key, then it has to be. If we don’t have a business or an economy that’s growing, we aren’t going to have money for taxes, schools and roads."
Bennett told the group of Gibson City business representatives that state government will be changing in major ways this week.
The new General Assembly will convene at the state capitol Wednesday, first voting on rules and then electing the new House speaker, who is all but certain to be 33-year incumbent Mike Madigan, who has served in the House since 1971 — "longer than some legislators have been alive," Bennett said.
The November mid-term election returned state government control to Democrats, who previously held veto-proof control of both chambers until 2016 along with the Governor’s Mansion for 12 years prior to 2014. The blue wave brought an end to Rauner’s tumultuous term as the state’s top executive and returned the state House to veto-proof Democratic control, along with an increased number in the state Senate.
"It’s pretty much an all-Democratic government in a very blue state," Bennett explained. "That happened for a variety of reasons. We’re still evaluating what happened and what needs to be done about it. Elections have consequences, and so there will be a number of things coming."
Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker campaigned on the promise of a graduated income tax — something that would require a constitutional amendment but could be implemented via tax credits in the current flat-tax-rate system.
Bennett highlighted Pritzker’s family ties to Hyatt Hotels, saying he hoped it would influence him to be more business-friendly.
But Bennett himself is against a graduated income tax.
"If you make $100,000, you’re tax is $5,000, and if you make $200,000 a year, you’re tax is $10,000," Bennett said. "I’m not in favor of that for a variety of reasons."
Pritzker alarmed residents during the primary campaign last year when he suggested converting the state’s gasoline tax to a miles-traveled tax. Although many residents have concerns about that, Bennett said discussion is necessary due to a number of vehicles being either electric or hybrid.
"You can’t tax them on gas they don’t use, so (legislators) are trying to figure out how to do it," Bennett said.
Bennett said legislators have made progress on school funding but still need to implement a larger evidence-based funding model that goes the distance that the 2017 funding model began.
Pritzker has also suggested adding income from gambling options such as land casinos, racetracks, video gaming and sports gambling along with legalizing cannabis like Colorado and Washington have already done.
A major program Pritzker has suggested is passing a capital improvement bill, something that has not been accomplished in several years other than a "mini-bill" in 2010. Bennett said his district would benefit from such a program.
"In our district, we have 65 small towns and villages," Bennett explained. "Every one of them has an issue with their sewer systems. We’re talking $1.5 million more per city. That would help a lot of towns in a lot of ways."
Bennett said fiscal responsibility is still the single most important issue in state government.
Illinois currently has accrued $130 billion in unfunded pension liabilities that will need to be paid off in increasing amounts until 2045. He said the state needs to follow its projected plans or else the situation will become worse.
"We had a formula that was supposed to be followed, but it wasn’t," Bennett said. "We had governors who decided to take pension holidays, and it created additional issues. Seventeen percent of our current budget goes toward pensions, and it won’t get any easier until 2045."
Still, Bennett said some members of the Democratic caucus haven’t followed that plan, with many proposing new government programs that would drive up the deficit.
Bennett said many of the representatives believe their proposed programs could be funded by the looming tax increase, but he said he challenges them on the House floor to justify their spending.
"When someone comes up on the floor with a new program or an expansion of an existing program, I’ll ask the representative how we’re going to pay for it," Bennett said. "We don’t have much of a discussion on that."
Contrary to what some politicians projected when the last budget was passed, Bennett said the budget is not balanced, largely relying on the sale of the Thompson Center in Chicago, something that has not happened and is not likely to happen in the near future.
Bennett also said the general deficit, unpaid bills and unfunded pension funds have been put off for far too long by state government, and it is not getting any easier.
"We see $130 billion in debt, it kind of glasses over some people’s eyes, but it’s huge," Bennett said. "This is absolutely huge how much money we’re talking about, and it gets worse every day."
The November election brought more than 30 new House members. Bennett said plenty of House members are not what many would consider longtime incumbents.
"Over half the Republicans are like me, where I’ve been there two terms," Bennett said. "There are a few people who have been there a long time, however."
Bipartisanship is still possible in Springfield, with it possible in Bennett’s own immediate family. The day before his chamber appearance, Bennett and his nephew, Democratic state Sen. Scott Bennett of Champaign, made a joint radio appearance on WDWS-Radio in Champaign to talk about state politics.
The elder Bennett said family will always be a permanent connection between the two, but legislative matters will not always be.
"I will not always be a state representative, but Scott will always be my nephew," Bennett explained. "Do we always agree on things? Oh, Lord, no. Pick a topic: Rauner, Pritzker, we don’t agree on. But on a lot of things we do agree on. We’re both Americans, we both live in Illinois, we both want to focus on the economy, we want to focus on jobs and try to get to the business aspect of that. There’s a lot of things in common than not."
The change for Republicans, however, is that Democrats do not need any GOP votes now to pass a piece of legislation, meaning that unlike Rauner, who was a "backstop" to Democrats, Pritzker would likely sign bills which garner broad majority support.
Bennett did mention Pritzker’s pick of a mix of Democrats and Republicans on his task force and administrative team, saying it could lead to bipartisanship in Springfield the next four years.
Bennett said the outgoing governor failed largely because he was not a part of this system.
"When we had Gov. Rauner, we had issues and challenges," Bennett explained. "I think he tried to do some good things, but he wasn’t always (part of) the landscape. We’ll see what Pritzker does."
Bennett was asked about gerrymandering after the 2020 census — a topic Republican leaders have criticized repeatedly.
On the federal level, Illinois is projected to lose one seat in Congress and possibly a second depending on how much population loss the state has accumulated in the past decade.
In state politics, Illinois is keeping the same number of House and Senate districts, but those could be altered depending on what Madigan’s team decides.
Bennett said his 106th District is the largest in the state, and is that way so Madigan can build up more Democratic seats, in his opinion.
"I don’t know how much larger it’s going to get," Bennett said. "Madigan tried to make this district as large a Republican district as possible (in 2010). Get them all in one big bucket and then you have more Democrats in control of the House."
Bennett said he has 60 potential bills on his desk, ranging from parking issues in Pontiac to voting rights in Eureka. Bennett said "about half" of his bills have come from residents of his district.
After an audience member asked about John Sullivan, Pritzker’s newly appointed director of agriculture, Bennett said he approves of the pick.
"He’s a Democrat but was elected in a strong Republican district. Farm background. Auctioneer, family. Big supporter of the agriculture community. I think he’s a big supporter of ag," Bennett said.
Bennett mentioned that he attended the Lions Club’s New Year’s Eve cash bash, where he won a commemorative football that he plans to display in his office in Springfield. The football honors the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School Falcons’ back-to-back state-champion football team.
"When people come into my office for whatever reason they’re going to see ‘back-to-back state champions GCMS,’" Bennett said "Not many towns in our district can talk about back-to-back anything."