Camille Lilly and Don Harmon

The battle over the state budget dominated a recent forum put on by two of Oak Park’s state representatives.

For nearly two hours last week, Don Harmon (D-39th), the president pro tempore of the Illinois Senate and Camille Lilly (D-78th) addressed concerns at the Oak Park Public Library before what appeared to be a partisan, Democratic-leaning crowd.

Pension and tax issues also came up during the forum. And throughout, Harmon set out the differences between the agenda of Democrats and the administration of the newly elected governor, Republican Bruce Rauner, particularly on the budget, which must be adopted before midnight on June 30. 

Without a budget, Harmon said the impact would be felt on state payrolls come mid-July. An impasse drifting into the fall could affect schools. Because of the way the property-tax system is structured in Cook County, the impact might be less on schools. But without state aid, downstate schools and those in the collar counties might not be able to open their doors.

Harmon noted that the budgets proposed by Democrats and the governor may not be that far apart. But what’s making it difficult for a budget to be adopted, Harmon said, is that Rauner continues to want his “harsh corporate agenda,” which if it were adopted would be paid for on the backs of the middle class. 

Central to that agenda, Harmon said, is eliminating the minimum wage, imposing right-to-work zones, eliminating fair share and undermining collective bargaining.

“There are huge opportunities to get together [on the budget], but as long as his core issue is that he is going to break the unions, we cannot turn on our core beliefs. I’m not going to negotiate that away,” Harmon said.

Harmon also said he wouldn’t accept a budget that was balanced on the backs of the state’s most vulnerable and pointed to, among other things, Rauner’s calls for ending childcare subsidies and subsidies allowing seniors can stay in their own homes rather than nursing homes, as well as services for people with disabilities and mental illness. 

“Either there’s not much to cut or he’s not the compassionate conservative he claims to be,” Harmon said. “There is no compassion in those cuts. … Some are penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Detrimental to the state as well would be dramatic reductions in state support for its universities, which has seen a dramatic reduction in financial support over the past decade. This loss in revenue could result in higher tuition. 

Also painful would be a cut in public transportation subsidies, which could have an impact on Metra, Pace and the CTA and lead to fare increases. 

While there is no revenue proposed yet for the budget, and the General Assembly has yet to hear from the governor for his ideas. Harmon said Democrats and Republicans recognize the state can’t simply cut its way to financial health. 

“We have to find a balance,” Harmon said. “There has to be some revenue to go with the cuts. It has to be a balanced package.”

Driving some concern during this session as well is the continued debate over pensions. Proceeds from the recently expired temporary income tax hike helped pay down some of that obligation. A huge pension payment needs to be made. And then there are reform proposals from the governor. One would protect current retirees and put new workers into a 401K. That could result in a similar constitutional crisis that the state just went through over the bill signed into law by former Gov. Pat Quinn.

But Harmon reassured those in attendance that they would not miss a pension check. 

“This is a long time in the fixing. We’re not anywhere near [bankruptcy],” Harmon said. “We’re getting our house in order. We’re trying to cut spending; we’re doing a smarter job with our revenue. We’re trying to modernize the tax code.”

To bring the state’s fiscal house in better shape, Harmon said he was the lead sponsor of a referendum that, if successful, would change the state constitution and do away with the flat income tax and institute a progressive income tax, which would mean lower rates for lower-income residents and higher tax rates for high-income residents. Bringing up that referendum drew thunderous applause from the audience.  

While the concerns are real, Harmon said he’s optimistic about the future.

“Illinois has a lot going for it,” Harmon said. “We will get through the fiscal problems and restore it to the place where it should be. Don’t lose faith.”

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