The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the nominees for Illinois Senate a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois and their districts.
Democrat Laura Ellman, who opposes Republican incumbent Michael Connelly in the general election in the 21st Illinois Senate district, submitted the following answers to our questionnaire:
Please explain what cause or causes you will make priorities.
Ellman: 1) Cleaning up Springfield: I want to make sure our state legislature works for everyday families in Illinois and not special interests. I will work to limit the influence of special interests and lobbyists in politics and enact campaign finance reform. I also support redistricting reforms and term limits for leadership positions, as well as no pay raises for legislators. This will help Springfield work for the people they were elected to represent.
2) Fixing our fiscal mess: Springfield’s inaction in addressing rising debts and unfunded liabilities coupled with the irresponsible budget impasse has hurt job growth, business investment, and the faith of Illinoisans in a solid future. I want to work across the aisle and drive real solutions to help get our state back on track financially, while holding the line on middle class taxes.
3) Reinvesting in education and our young people. One of the biggest priorities we have in our district that I hear from constituents about is ensuring strong public schools. While the new Evidence-Based Funding system for public schools helps address inequality in our public schools statewide, we must work to ensure these schools are fully funded in ways that don’t drive up property taxes further.
Two school districts in our neighborhoods are seriously underfunded, with West Chicago 33 at 59% adequacy and Indian Prairie 204 at 79% adequacy. We’ve got to ensure that school funding is increased significantly and that the state delivers funding to schools consistently. Our schools build community and neighborhoods and help our young people build a future. All our students should have access to quality, affordable education from our public schools to our state universities.
This is crucial for addressing inequality, creating jobs, and reinvesting in our communities, all which helps businesses and families come to Illinois as well.
Please list three concerns that are highly specific to your district, such as a project that should be undertaken or a state policy related to some local issue that must be changed.
Ellman: 1) The lack of affordable housing is an issue our communities face. Our district is overwhelmingly whiter and wealthier than the rest of Illinois, and the price of housing not only keeps young people and people from diverse backgrounds from living here, but it also prices seniors out of their homes. During my work with the Naperville Fair Housing Commission, we passed a city ordinance to ensure landlords accepted Section 8 vouchers as income to be eligible for renting, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
In addition, when I knock on doors and talk to people all over the district, I hear a lot about property taxes being too high and causing friends and neighbors to consider moving. Naperville is one of the top ten cities in the country with the most burdensome property taxes. We also have some of the best public schools, which has more to do with property taxes than state funding right now. This issue requires a larger solution, which would involve reforming our income tax structure and generating new sources of revenue, so that we could reduce the burden on homeowners in this district and ensure fair housing.
2) Our district faces infrastructure concerns that were worsened due to the budget impasse. Two areas where I will focus on improving infrastructure are public transit and our roads and protecting our parks and natural resources. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Illinois’ infrastructure a C- rating earlier this year. This has a real impact on people here in Illinois – like the delays and overcrowding many commuters experienced on the Metra earlier this summer.
This is a district filled with heavy commuters, and we need to improve our roads and our commuter rail. We should invest in infrastructure to improve our roads and reduce congestion, and we should also expand public transit options like adding more buses and routes to PACE so people can rely on public transit not just during rush hour commutes. This is also an issue that impacts people with disabilities in our district and those who can’t drive, and it hampers business investment as well as public transit is a solid indicator of the quality of life that draws young people to an area.
We also need more infrastructure for our parks and natural resources. More than forty thousand acres are either owned by the Forest Preserve District or local park districts in DuPage County. Over 25,000 acres are owned by the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, about 12% of the total land in DuPage County. Included in this are 60 forest preserves, 30 lakes, over 45 miles of rivers and streams and over 145 miles of trails.
These areas are part of what makes the 21st District such a beautiful place to live and provide affordable recreation for families as well. However, state funding for these our local parks and preserves through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been lower than in the past, especially with the budget crisis. We must fight for our local waterways and preserves to help curb pollution and keep them beautiful, and we cannot rely on property taxes alone to do so.
3) Another issue that I will take on for our district is increasing healthcare access to ensure that people who need services are able to get the care they need. We must improve the implementation and delivery of healthcare, mental health services, and disability services. The state backlogs, waitlists, and unpaid bills are unacceptable, and people in our district are unable to navigate the system to access services. Legislation to increase expectations of Illinois’ healthcare administration is needed, as is legislation to increase pay for healthcare providers to reduce shortages of personal care.
Over the next year, the fastest growing industry in DuPage County is expected to be in healthcare and in personal care and service. We can bring jobs to DuPage County while ensuring that people in our district aren’t languishing on a waitlist for the care they need. Currently, providers of individual care for seniors and people with disabilities are understaffed by about half, which makes it all the more difficult for people to access the care they need when they need it.
Furthermore, our public schools have excellent special education programs, but the resources drop off when kids graduate. We need to increase resources and help families navigate those resources more easily so that young people with special needs can meet their potential and have what they need to live well, such as programs to help people enter the workforce and live independently.
Who is Laura Ellman?
Her legislative District:
- State Senate District 21
Her political/civic background:
- Naperville Fair Housing Commission
- Habitat for Humanity volunteer
- Feed My Starving Children volunteer
- ESL tutor
- Senior Independent Assessor at Argonne National Laboratory
- Grinnell College (1987, Mathematics)
- University of Iowa Master’s in Applied Statistics (1990)
Campaign website: ellmanforillinois.com
What are the most important differences between you and your opponent?
Ellman: The most important differences between me and my opponent is that he is stoops down to the level of partisan games and appeasing corporate and special interests rather than solving problems and standing up for working and middle class Illinoisans.
I want to work for evidence-based solutions and create opportunity for all. Senator Connelly has voted against school funding, women’s rights, workers rights, and LGBTQ rights, and he has voted to continue the irresponsible budget impasse to stand with Governor Rauner.
I will be an independent voice who is accountable to everyday Illinoisans and my constituents, not lobbyists and corporate interests. Unlike Senator Connelly, I will fight for our students, for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, and for working and middle class Illinoisans.
Illinois is now the sixth-most populated state, down from No. 5, after 33,703 people moved out between July 2016 and July 2017. What must the Legislature do to make Illinois a more desirable place to live?
Ellman: The number one reason people are moving out of Illinois is financial uncertainty from the budget impasse, unfunded pension liabilities, and severe debt. When I talk to people at the door about their biggest concerns for Illinois, many discuss people leaving the state, and they blame our debt crisis and fiscal uncertainty. The uncertainty about our future is hampering investments in our state, creating fear for residents of increased taxes and more budget cuts, especially as we’ve seen no plan from Springfield.
Job growth has slowed as well, as employers are wary of the future and aren’t investing or expanding in Illinois. All of this has also hurt our young people, who are leaving the state for more affordable, higher quality universities and not returning to Illinois for work. A governor who has been bashing Illinois publicly while actively contributing to our fiscal uncertainty certainly does not help.
We need independent voices who are willing to work with and listen to lawmakers across the aisle to create a clear, level-headed, concrete plan to address the uncertainty and take steps to clean up our fiscal mess. Making an action plan to move us forward will help alleviate some uncertainty. This includes structural pension reforms, spending and tax reforms, and getting creative with new revenue sources. We also must get our economy and our tax base growing again by strengthening our middle class and reducing the tax burden on lower income and middle-class families.
This will drive demand and propel growth, increase revenue and help residents and businesses stay in Illinois. We can also increase transparency in spending, including for struggling municipal governments, to give people more confidence in how their taxes are rebuilding Illinois and reducing debt.
Lastly, we need to grow good-paying jobs and create a clear vision of how Illinois can thrive heading into the future. We have a highly skilled and highly educated workforce with diverse, hard working communities and vibrant cities with diverse economies. We also have agricultural areas already looking at climate change adaptation. We can foster entrepreneurship, sustainable agriculture, and new technologies in green energy and transportation.
In 2017, our state’s unfunded pension liability ballooned to more than $130 billion. What’s to be done about that?
Ellman: The legislature should certainly work to control pension costs, especially for mounting debts and interest payments. This is an issue that has worsened as state lawmakers have avoided addressing our growing unfunded liabilities, and politicians have been more concerned with casting blame across the aisle instead of bellying up to meet our obligations.
We need to have a viable plan to improve our credit rating, encourage business investment and economic growth, and decrease our borrowing and debts. As State Senator, I would use my problem solving skills from my masters degree in applied statistics and my work from two decades as an engineer in the private sector to collaborate with lawmakers and stakeholders and work for evidence-based, data-driven reforms.
Consolidating pension funds to improve management and ensuring a steady stream of payments by increasing revenues through tax reforms and other new sources of revenue would be a great place to start.
From 2000 to 2016, the number of Illinois residents who enrolled as college freshmen outside the state increased by 73% (20,507 to 35,445). Why are so many more Illinois residents going to college elsewhere? What should be done to encourage more of them to go to school here?
Ellman: Illinois residents are going to college elsewhere because we are not providing enough educational and economic opportunity. Students need access to quality, affordable education right here in our state. With recent tuition hikes and cuts to faculty and programs, our universities are not attracting young people. We must also reinvest in our state universities and in MAP grants to provide more need-based financial aid for students. This will help bring more young people here and stop the “brain drain” to other states, while creating a hub of research, innovation, and technology jobs centered around our universities.
We must create more opportunity for our young people to succeed and for our communities to thrive by focusing on our schools. We must also invest in our state’s healthcare and infrastructure as well as programs and services that improve quality of life in Illinois, which draws young people and business investment.
What laws, if any, should the Legislature pass to address the problem of gun violence?
Ellman: The legislature should pass legislation to encourage responsible gun ownership and keep our families safe. The bills recently passed to create a Lethal Violence Order of Protection and disarm those who would potentially harm themselves or others and to expand the 72 hours waiting period to all guns are good steps, but we still have work to do.
I support legislation to combat illegal gun trafficking, increasing the minimum age of gun purchases, encouraging training for safe handling and storage of guns, registration for firearms in addition to FOID, and limits on bulk gun purchases. We should also improve care and resources for people with mental health issues, improve counseling in public schools, and improve trauma care in areas with high gun violence.
On-demand scheduling software now helps large retail companies determine how many staff members they will need on a day-to-day or even hour-to-hour basis. The downside is that employees may not receive their work schedules until the last minute. Oregon and a number of cities have responded by adopting “fair scheduling” laws. Would it be appropriate for the Illinois Legislature to pass a “fair scheduling” law? Please explain. What would such a law look like?
Ellman: I think workers should be given an appropriate amount of notice about their work schedules. This software might be fine for some, but it limits work opportunities for those juggling kids or classes who need to be able to plan their week. We must defend workers and working class families, which means ensuring they are not expected to drop everything and show up for a shift with a few hours’ notice. A fair scheduling law would be appropriate to help make sure those with other commitments are still able to access retail employment, potentially requiring companies to give at least two days’ notice before shift changes or scheduling. There are other potential ways to go about this as well, such as allowing companies to use the software only for employees who declare themselves to be more flexible and not penalizing workers who need more notice.
Should recreational marijuana be legalized in Illinois? Please explain.
Ellman: Yes. Legalizing marijuana will bring hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue to our state and help address our debt problems. It will also create jobs here in Illinois and bring more people to our state, both of which will spur the economy and increase our tax base. In addition, legalization of recreational marijuana will help curb the impacts of the war on drugs on communities of color and help to address some of the ways in which institutional racism occurs throughout our criminal justice system.
Opioid overdoses and fatalities continue to rise in number. In Illinois in 2017, there were 13,395 opioid overdoses, including 2,110 deaths. What should the Legislature do, if anything, about this?
Ellman: The opioid crisis is severe in Illinois, and Illinois legislators have a responsibility to address it. Legalizing recreational marijuana would help, as would expanding access to free or reduced-price naloxone and expanding programs to collect unused prescription opioids or work with prescribers to prescribe a more limited number of pills. Expanding funding for mental health and rehab programs would also be beneficial.
The Future Energy Jobs Act, passed in 2016, is generating job growth in renewable energy and improving energy efficiency. Do you agree or disagree with the objectives and substance of the Act? What more — or less — should be done?
Ellman: I support the Future Energy Jobs Act. It will help grow our economy and help our environment at the same time. I strongly believe that Illinois must do more to counteract President Trump’s dangerous anti-environmental agenda and ensure clean water and clean air, which means cutting fossil fuel pollution. We must ensure the FEJA programs for low-income communities and investments in renewable energy development are fully funded. We could also institute a similar program to Massachusetts’ successful Green Communities program, which provides grants to communities that have pledged to cut municipal energy use by 20%, helping them find clean energy and efficiency solutions that reduce long-term energy costs and strengthen local economies.
What would you do to ensure the long-term viability of the state’s Medicaid program? What is your view on managed care for Medicaid beneficiaries?
Ellman: I think managed care is a good idea to cut costs while keeping people healthier, but MCOs must be supervised and regulated in order to protect our most vulnerable citizens. The state legislature should allow Medicaid to negotiate better drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
Underfunding at the Department of Corrections has led to troubling findings by the auditor general that many inmates don’t receive services or opportunities for work while incarcerated. Is this a legitimate concern? What should the Legislature do?
Ellman: Mass incarceration and lack of opportunity for inmates is a huge problem, especially when it comes to equality of opportunity and racial and wealth inequality. Inmates should be rehabilitated and able to reenter society, which means education programs and work opportunities are paramount. In addition, people in the state’s care must receive fair and humane treatment, and we cannot deny people access to services. The legislature can work to continue to curb over-incarceration and overcrowding in prisons. Cutting back on mandatory minimum sentencing and diverting people to programs as an alternative to prisons will help, but the bottom line is that the legislature must ensure adequate funding for programs and services in prisons.
Should the state restore the practice of parole for people sentenced to long terms? Why or why not?
Ellman: Absolutely, especially for those who committed their crime as a minor. The Supreme Court ruled against life sentences without parole for minors, but too many in Illinois are facing a “de facto” life sentence with extremely long terms without the opportunity for parole. SB 3228 would address this issue for those who committed a crime as a juvenile and served a significant portion of their sentence. There are also those serving long sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes. We must review these issues and restore parole opportunities for those who committed crimes as juveniles and for those whose crimes were not violent.
Ahead of the historic 2018 elections, the Sun-Times is teaming up weekly with the Better Government Association, in print and online, to fact-check the truthfulness of the candidates. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.