Candidates squaring off in several primary races faced off Monday at a forum sponsored by A+ Illinois, which focused on education and how it is funded federally, locally and in the state.

State Sen. Don Harmon (38th) and his Republican and Democratic opponent James Rowe and Michael Nardello attended, along with 4th District candidates James T. Smith and incumbent state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, and 8th District candidates state Sen. Calvin Giles and Democratic opponent LaShawn K. Ford.

7th District House candidate Chris Welch attended but his opponent Rep. Karen Yarbrough was a no show. Jacques Conway, an Oak Park police officer and Oak Park and River Forest High School board member sat in for Yarbrough. State Rep. Deborah Graham (78) rounded out the group.

Questions were taken by the audience and asked by moderator Nancy Leavy of A+ Illinois.

A major question involved Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s no new tax pledge which he made during his re-election announcement. Several candidates and General Assembly incumbents expressed disappointment in the governor’s pledge, with many feeling it will hurt chances to improve funding for education.

House Bill 755, which has yet to pass out of committee, would create the School District Property Tax Relief Fund, requiring Springfield legislators in fiscal year 2006 to appropriate $2.4 billion for school funding. It would also appropriate additional amounts each fiscal year afterward.

Lightford, who’s running for re-election, is one of the chief sponsors of the original senate version of HB 755. She said once the bill arrived on the senate floor, it became stifled in election year politics. She predicts the bill would be passed after the election.

“It died in gridlock,” she said. “It was not reintroduced this year, and I’m disappointed that our governor came out as early as he did and took a ‘no tax’ pledge without informing us what his revenue stream would be to generate funding for our public school system.”

Giles said a great deal of support from the public would help inspire legislators to pass the bill.

“I would support the measure if it gets to the house floor,” he said. “I’ve spoken to many parents about this measure and this is going to have to be a grassroots effort to get this train going.”

Smith opted not to answer the question saying that he wasn’t familiar with the measure, but Ford said he would support the bill and any other measure to help better fund schools.

“It’s crucial that we do what it takes to take the burden off of property taxes,” he said.

Panelists were asked a variety of questions concerning property taxes and other funding sources for education in Illinoisincluding how would they reduce the burden on property taxes to pay for education?

Graham: We need to have the conversation and make every body comfortable and not make tax increases a dirty word. We need to have every body share the burden, even if you’re not a property owner. The people and policy makers making these decisions need to be comfortable with the word tax increase.

Nardello: We need to make education a number one priority in Illinois. Right now, the state is paying about 30 percent into the education funding sources that are available, and the rest is relied upon by property taxes. And there’s where the inequalities exist. We need to look for alternative funding sources. And as mentioned and discussed earlier, there’s the sales tax but we need to look down the road and find these alternatives.

Rowe: I don’t think tax increase is a bad word, I just think it’s a bad idea. The state of Illinois taxes our property and income. We’re taxed when we go to the store and buy groceries and go to the pump to pay for gas. We’re paying everything we have but it’s not coming back to our district. But Illinois doesn’t necessarily have a revenue crisis but a spending crisis. That’s a priority problem and instead of raising taxes, we need to look at what we’re wasting in spending.

Welch: We started this discussion by saying we want to keep our options open. And I think that’s part of the solution. Property taxes as the basis for funding schools is not the answer in Illinois. That’s why we rank 48 out of 50 [states] in funding education. And lottery money is not going to where it is supposed to be going. We need to talk about pork pet projects. That money can be put in funding education.

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