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Madeleine Doubek: Lawmaker takes on Illinois fiscal woes

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I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed one day recently when I spun past a guy in a tie juggling sticks of fire.

He looked familiar.

I spun back and sure enough, there was state Sen. Daniel Biss throwing three flaming sticks into the air, catching them and talking. What in the world is this?

This, it turns out, is Biss, an Evanston Democrat and former math professor, grabbing my attention, and hopefully yours, to talk about Illinois’ challenges and his vision for what he calls “The Road Back.”

Juggling fire as a metaphor for Illinois’ hot problems? Yep. That works.

“In Illinois today we’re juggling a lot of challenges,” Biss says as he pulls out a lighter and sets the first baton aflame. We’re debt ridden, with the biggest pension debt nationwide. We have unfair tax systems, he says, and the No. 1 education funding gap in the country. The baton fires are raging and he’s flipping and catching, flipping and catching.


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“We’re playing with fire. It’s a dangerous situation,” he says as he tosses and looks at the camera. “… We have to put out this fire, but in a way that’s realistic, achievable and fair.”

That video, available on and on YouTube, actually is the second of three Biss has published so far. Two more are planned and there are several posts that go with them.

Collapsing pension funds, unbalanced budgets, tax burdens, transparency, school funding, corruption. Biss tackles it all. It can get a bit esoteric, but he’s lit up the key problems and he’s tossing solutions.

Biss, a lawmaker since 2011 and an architect of several attempts at pension reform, believes Illinois should consolidate its 600 pension funds and offer an optional buyout program that could help both public workers and the state’s taxpayers. And guess what? Rauner and the Republicans likely could support those ideas, too. Some Republicans already have offered up the buyout idea. They also agree on addressing Illinois’ too-high property tax burdens by consolidating its too-many governments.

Several months ago, Biss got sick of complaining about GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, so he sat down at his kitchen counter and started writing. Biss said he “made the mistake” of telling Eric Adelstein and his crew at A|L Media he could juggle with fire, something he became obsessed with as a young man.

(Fun backstory: Biss wasn’t worried about his tie catching fire. He was worried about being able to read the TelePrompter while throwing fire. It worked in about six takes with no drops. If you look closely, you can see the flecks of water appear and disappear on his shirt from the editing process because the sticks were dunked in water after each take.)

The videos and website came together all at a cost of a bit more than $30,000, which Biss is paying for from his campaign fund.

Is this some clever political gimmick? Well, policy gimmick, more accurately. Biss isn’t on the ballot this fall. He briefly ran for comptroller, but bowed out, and his Senate seat isn’t up this year. Still, a fire-juggling candidate who lays out problems and solutions in a thoughtful and clever way is bound to help himself should he pursue higher office down the road. Just as hot-shot pool shooter Dawn Clark Netsch did back in her day.

“This isn’t the time for that discussion,” Biss says. It is the time for this candid assessment: “As Democrats, if we acknowledge there are real problems, we should have our own diagnosis and prescription and we really haven’t done that, in part, because it was all-consuming to deal with Gov. Rauner. The Road Back is my attempt to say to myself, ‘Hey, Daniel, quit complaining and start doing.’’

And so he has. His next two videos get back to some of the themes in his first, talking about Illinois’ need for a high-skilled, high-wage, innovative economy and solutions that require what he calls an “investment of human capital.”

So, isn’t admitting that your party has failed to lay out a vision an indictment?

“I think it’s an effort to augment my own party’s efforts,” Biss says, carefully picking his words. I laugh at the purposefully diplomatic answer. He laughs with me.

“This is a hard time for my party,” Biss says. “We haven’t had a Republican governor for 12 years and there’s been no one like this one. We have to do more than just react.”

Madeleine Doubek is publisher of Reboot Illinois.

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