By Jim Bowman
Sen. Don Harmon and Rep. Camille Lilly took it on the chin in Galewood Sept. 12 from a crowd of 60 or so town-hall listeners in a Galewood church.
In a meeting of just over an hour, assorted cries from the heart filled the air while Harmon and Lilly responded civilly but as the evening wore on, less so, even testily, with Lilly fairly shouting at one point, talking over questioners.
Harmon was optimistic at the start. The state, he said, is "turning the corner." There has been "no borrowing for last three years." The pension problem is "not as dire as some of the media say." Pensions are not the issue but growth of benefits.
This didn't satisfy a retired teacher, who asked why her benefits were on the line.
They aren't, Harmon said. "It's that they don't grow at the same rate."
Limiting rate of growth reduces what I receive, the woman said, giving a dollar amount.
Reducing state payout is the point, Harmon might have said, but didn't. Later he would, when pressed even further. (It's a Republican argument, however, and would take him off message, which is to minimize the problem and play down cuts.)
Another woman cited the recently publicized expensive copper doors at the state capitol, while the state is cutting benefits. She said it demonstrates a "Let them eat cake" attitude.
Harmon explained that the money does not come from general revenues but from the "five-year-old" Illinois Jobs Now! program -- in fact signed into law by Gov. Quinn on July 10, 2009, with accompanying taxation to pay for it, a cool $30 billion over six years.
"People in power need money, they get it," said man in process of emptying a grab bag of populist complaints. "The state has a revenue problem, not a spending problem. We should raise taxes on the people who can afford it," especially "cronies." He said, he did not want "you guys" to "follow lockstep with Rahm and the others in closing [Chicago] schools."
Lilly bristled. "I was one of the few" to oppose the closings, she said. "I am very concerned . . . I am going to make sure" this issue is revisited in "our great state. . . "
Then with increased intensity, she preached a gospel of austerity: "Everyone will have to help. It's not easy, it's not comfortable." Someone spoke up, she cut her off: "Not yet," raising her voice yet louder, in stern, indeed peremptory fashion.
A woman said her health insurance was rising yearly. The premium had doubled. To which Lilly: "That's why ACA [ObamaCare] is coming."
"No, that's the problem," the woman said, taking Lilly aback. "I'm getting hit over and over . . . "
Lilly interrupted. "Pain is critical. It can be good."
Finally, Harmon took the mike, commiserating -- "I feel for you" -- then picking up on Lilly's argument -- "but we can't afford your free health care for life."
To the angry populist, he noted that he had been chief sponsor of a 67% income tax increase, from 3% to 5% -- no longer calling it a 2% increase.
To which the angry populist: "It's not on the right people!" To which Harmon: "I am chief sponsor of a fair [progressive] income tax."
But the turmoil continued. A man in the rear: "Are you listening? So much is going on" in state politics, "constantly." Applause followed. "We're paying you . . . It's embarrassing . . . awful."
Lilly: "I have heard every single word since I have been honored to be a state legislator. God gave me this opportunity. I have learned so much . . . " She advanced, mike held close, raising her voice, intoning one of her mantras, "This great state . . . " She was shouting now, angry but trying somehow to identify with the complainer. Hands were raised all over the room.
Harmon: "It's discouraging," apparently conceding the sad state of things, but not the accusation. "What have we not heard?" he asked, seeking specifics.
"We need fresh blood," said another angry questioner. "We suffer while you guys do nothing."
"What are we not hearing?" Harmon asked again.
"There's so much . . . " the man said. It was 7:30, 45 minutes into the meeting. Harmon's aide stood with a clip board, said it was time to gather written questions from the audience. She begin walking around the room.
Other matters arose: illegal immigrants using scarce "resources," not paying taxes (vigorously opposed by several from the floor); declining property values in Galewood and lack of a public library "we can take our kids" to; a North Avenue pawn shop.
"Residents need a voice," a woman said. We are stuck. You have to listen."
The North Avenue problems raised a call for Alderman Graham, former state rep for Oak Park, who said she had "learned quite a bit" from this meeting. Harmon closed with thanks for those who had come, as did Lilly.