The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates running for the Illinois House a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois.
Republican Amanda Biela submitted the following answers to our questionnaire, and watch the video above to find out why she’s running to represent the 15th district in the Illinois House.
Please explain what cause or causes you will make priorities.
Biela: My number one priority is lowering the tax burden that is currently overwhelming Illinoisans. When I knock on doors, I constantly hear complaints and worries about the taxation that residents are facing and whether or not it is worth it for them financially to stay in Illinois. Many are choosing to pack their bags and move to greener economic pastures in neighboring states. In order to stop this exodus and bring tax relief, I advocate for a 1% hard cap (based on market value of residential homes) on property taxes. This would effectively handcuff local municipalities in spending and force both them and the General Assembly to actually tackle important issues such as pension reform. Indiana has such a 1% cap in place and they are making it work. Our Hoosier neighbors are able to balance their budget, pay for governmental services and schools and not bankrupt their citizens. I have met so many folks that are afraid they are going to lose their home, not because they can’t pay their mortgage, but because they can’t pay their taxes. Additionally, I am also in favor of rescinding the 2017 income tax increases on both individuals and businesses. We’ve created an environment where the entrepreneurial spirit is not appreciated nor welcome.
Another priority of mine is to change the political culture of Springfield. For too long our state has been run by machine politicians who care only for the power they can attain and the wealth they can accumulate. We need a clean break from these machines and political family dynasties that serve themselves, not their constituents. We need a return of the Citizen Legislator that our founders envisioned where everyday folks would serve their peers as a privilege not a lucrative, career stepping stone. Such representatives would meet, legislate and then return home and be a part of the community like everyone else.
The Citizen Legislator also realizes that they should conduct themselves with decency and respect for those they represent and the colleagues they work with. Because the issues that are most important to us transcend party allegiance and political ideology.
I vow not to take a public pension as a State Representative. I also will advocate for reform measures such as term limits and fair redistricting practices. Gerrymandering needs to end. The people are best represented when districts are drawn in a fair, non-partisan manner.
Who is Amanda Biela?
Her legislative District: State Representative–15th District
Her political/civic background: I am political newcomer running for the first time. Within my community, I am incredibly active with local youth and parenting organizations. I serve as the Committee Chair of our local Cub Scout Pack along with being a Den and Girl Scout Leader. I volunteer at the local elementary school and, am also the past president of a local parenting organization, Moms Club of Northwest Chicagoland. Politically, I have been active with various organizations including Chicago Republican Women’s Network, The Republicans of Maine Township, the Niles Township Regular Republican Organization and the Northwest Side GOP Club.
Her occupation: Currently, I am a stay-at-home mother to my three children. Previously, I was a Chicago public high school teacher. I taught social studies (U.S. History, Law, Economics) at Curie High School on the Southwest Side before transitioning into social services. I served as Program Director for the Washington Park branch of Chicago Youth Programs, a non-profit youth organization that serves underprivileged kids ages 3-18 years.
Her education: B.A. History/Political Science, Illinois College, 1998, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. Additionally, teaching credentials acquired for social studies secondary education. M.A. Social Sciences, University of Chicago, 2002
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.
Biela: 1. I am a former Chicago Public Schools teacher. My husband is a CPS principal. My kids go to the local neighborhood CPS elementary school. We are a CPS family through and through. We have full faith the district will provide our children a quality education. That said, we were upset and saddened to learn of the recent sexual abuse scandal within CPS. Every parent should be confident that when they send their son or daughter to school each morning that their child will be kept safe, treated with respect and protected from predators. Fortunately, in the wake of these horrendous incidents, CPS has taken swift action to make sure they do not happen again such as updating their volunteer process, re-running background checks on all employees and coaches, and creating an office whose primary goal is to deal with abuse cases and allegations. Additionally, there is more that can be done to prevent abuse within the CPS and this is where the General Assembly can take action.
One of the most disturbing revelations to come out of the CPS scandal was that predator teachers who had been fired from one school district for inappropriate conduct were rehired. You might wonder how could this have happened? Many states require school districts to disclose a teacher’s past misconduct to prospective employers, regardless of when it happened. But here in Illinois, state law prohibits school districts from disclosing employee records after four years have passed, including ones that show sexual misconduct with students. This law needs to be changed. A teacher’s past history should follow them for the rest of their lives. The safety and well-being of students is at stake. I would sponsor legislation that there be no statute of limitations on disclosing a teacher’s past abuse history to prospective employers.
Such legislation would be vital to the 15th District since half of the district is located in Chicago with a high percentage of students in that half attending CPS. This legislation would greatly benefit the whole state because sadly it is likely that abusers also exist outside of Chicago.
2. Another concern I have for the 15th District is prevailing wage for construction jobs for public sector projects. Currently, the state dictates the wage that local municipalities, townships and counties must pay workers. The wage is often distorted and much higher than would be in the private sector in the local communities. For instance, prevailing wage hits Cook County (which the 15th District is located in entirely) incredibly hard. The annualized cost (wages and benefits) a local municipality must pay for an electrician is $166,421, a plumber is $162,698, a carpenter is $161,491 and a general labor is $142,834. These wages are incredibly out of step with the private sector. Prevailing wage is a classic example of an unfunded mandate. The state dictates what must be paid, but they provide no financial assistance to pay these grossly inflated wages. In turn, this causes local property taxes to rise to cover the high costs of the workers. If elected, I would advocate to rescind the Prevailing Wage Act and let local communities pay what they can afford within their budget.
3. As I have already mentioned, but will mention again, taxation is the biggest concern for Illinoisans and it is especially a sticking point with constituents in the 15th District where property taxes are soaring at some of the highest rates in the state. Not only is the rate high, but homeowners feel that they are being incredibly over-assessed by outgoing Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios who incompetency and corruption is legendary. My district deserves better. Once again, my solution to alleviate the property tax burden on residents is to enact a 1% hard cap (of market value of residential homes) on property taxes. This would bring instant relief and security to the homeowners of my district.
What are the most important differences between you and your opponent?
Biela: There are several stark and telling differences between my opponent, John D’Amico, and I. First, I will be a 100% independent candidate. I am not beholden to any one group, organization, political party or special interest. In fact, I already made the difficult decision to discontinue and turn down further support from a powerful special interest group (the Dan Proft-led Illinois Opportunity Project) because I didn’t feel comfortable with how they were trying to control me and my message.
My opponent is just the opposite. He is tied to Mike Madigan and his machine. He never crosses Madigan in policy and has voted for him as speaker six times. He has also received $148, 868 from Madigan-controlled political committees. My opponent comes from a local political dynasty (the Laurino family) who has held many elected offices throughout the Northwest side, most notably the 39th ward. I hold no animosity towards Representative D’Amico and his family, but I don’t think you get good government when people are voting because of family names instead of policies of substance.
Another difference is I have no aspiration for personal profit. In fact, I will not even seek a public pension if elected State Representative. I don’t believe one should be enriched financially by serving the people. A modest salary is one thing; a grossly, over-generous pension is another. My opponent does not see it the same way. He chooses to accept the public pension as State Representative (which mind you, is his second public pension after his one he will collect from his job with the Chicago Water Department). I simply don’t believe representing the people should come with a considerable retirement perk that is shouldered by those same folks they serve.
Lastly, if elected, serving as State Representative will be my sole vocation. I will put all my time, energy and skills into being the Citizen Legislator that the 15th District deserves. As mentioned before, John D’Amico also works for the Water Department. I will be able to give my full and complete attention to my constituents in a way that John D’Amico cannot.
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?
Biela: Without a doubt, the number one reason residents are leaving our state in droves is taxation. Illinois has one of the overall highest tax burdens in the nation. The average Illinoisan is paying roughly 10% of their personal income in state and local taxes. Our property taxes are twice the national average and are increasing at a rate three times that of personal income. Additionally, income tax was increased by 32% with the 2017 budget with no sunset on that increase. Sales tax continues to be high especially in the Chicagoland area where rates often hover around 10%. Residents have to contend with a multitude of nickel and dime taxes (gas, cell phone, water bottles, plastic bags, etc) that really shouldn’t be categorized as nickel and dime taxes since they are costing the tax payers dollars upon dollars.
People have begun to look across the border to neighboring states that are much more economically stable and viable. These states offer lower taxes, but still provide similar or better services than Illinois. It’s very attractive to over-taxed Illinoisans. So much in fact, over 33,000 of them left in the last year to greener economic pastures. Illinois is the only state in the Midwest to lose population. Every other one of our Midwestern neighbors has increased their population.
People are packing their bags. Talk to anyone in the Chicagoland area and they can give you a list of family and friends that have left the state. I personally know families that have moved to Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Tennessee, Colorado, Alabama and South Carolina. None of these people hated Illinois per se. They had good, well-paying jobs. Their families were often very actively involved in their communities. But the taxes were just simply too much. It didn’t make financial sense for them to stay. When I talk with families on the playground or at Cub Scout meetings, most folks will tell you that they have an escape plan in place in case things get “too bad”. Everyone has a tipping point and if Illinois doesn’t reduce the tax burden even more people are going to flee in the future.
When looking for how to make Illinois more desirable, it all comes back to taxes and the huge burden residents and businesses are under. Of all taxes, property taxes are driving the most people out of our state. The median property tax rate in Illinois is 2.67% which is not only the highest in the nation but double the national median rate of 1.31%. You have people paying for their homes twice, once with their mortgage and once with taxes. I would advocate for a 1% hard cap (as a percentage of home value) on property taxes. Indiana has employed a 1% hard cap for many years to great success. If it can work there, it can work here. It would essentially handcuff the local and state governments to make different spending decisions and actually push them to take up difficult issues such as pension reform.
Property tax reform for businesses is also an issue. Similar to homeowners, you have small business owners who are being driven out because they can’t afford their property taxes. While knocking on doors for my campaign, I met a man in the suburb of Glenview who owns two gas station right in the community. He told me he was so fed up with the property taxes and also additional state regulations and fees that he was thinking about selling his businesses. Here, you had a proud entrepreneur who was ready to throw in the towel, not because he wasn’t successful at running his businesses, but because he couldn’t keep up with the taxes. Sadly, this is not a singular story. It’s happening all over the state. Businesses shutting their doors or moving across state lines because it’s not worth the cost of doing business in Illinois.
In 2017, our state’s unfunded pension liability ballooned to more than $130 billion. What’s to be done about that?
Biela: Despite unfunded pension liability ballooning to a scary and fiscally unsound level of $130 billion, there are several areas where sound reforms can be made to fix the unsteady ground the state is standing on. That said, we must reassure our current workers and pensioners in the system that promises made to them in regards to their pensions will be kept. I don’t say this lightly. I understand the fear many have that their pension will be taken away or depreciated. After all, my family is a pension family. But we have to make reforms now with new hires or those promised pensions may not be fiscally possible without incredible tax hikes.
The biggest and most important reform is to switch all new hires in state’s five public pensions from a defined-contribution plan to a self-managed 401K type plan. Once again, let me repeat this is only for new hires and would not affect employees already in the system though employees would be given the option to switch to the self-managed plan if they wanted to. By going with a self-managed plan for new hires, a huge weight is taken off the state. The bleeding wound would be staunched and the state would have a defined number of employees/retirees in the pension system that it would have to deal with going forward.
There are also benefits to new hires with a self-managed plan. They are free to take their retirement with them if they choose to leave their profession or move to another state. They are also not tied to the job until a prescribed retirement age. Under the current pension system, there are plenty of workers serving the public that are incredibly burned-out, but who keep working because they want their full pension. With a self-managed plan, workers can figure out a retirement age that is best for them. Also, increased salaries might be more readily available if the state doesn’t have to pick up the pension costs at the end of their career.
Another way to control pension costs is to consolidate government. Illinois has an overabundance of governmental units. They are costly and often simply duplicating the same services. With consolidation, we would shrink the size of government and number of positions necessary for our state to function. I’m not advocating for wholesale scrapping of governmental jobs, but there should be more investigation into whether or not positions should be maintained especially after someone retires from a post.
Lastly, I would favor legislation that does away with pension spiking. This could be done with limitations on state subsidies being used by local officials to boost end-of-career salaries for employees. Also, it’s time to revisit what the penalty is for breaking pension spike caps. Often school districts don’t mind breaking caps (recently set at 3% increase for the last four years of service) to give employees the added salary and retirement benefit even if it means a fine from the state that taxpayers end up footing the bill for.
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?
Biela: As a parent whose first child will be entering college in less than five years, the brain-drain occurring in Illinois is alarming. Enrollment at our public universities is plummeting across the state. At some schools such as Chicago State University, Eastern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University, the percentage drop in enrollment has been double digits. Students are fleeing our state and once they leave for college they often don’t come back after graduation.
Without a doubt, cost is the number reason why students are looking outside of Illinois. Tuition at Illinois public universities have been rising for years. It’s to the point where it is often as expensive to stay in-state as it is to pay out-of-state tuition. Additionally, neighboring schools often offer more substantial financial aid packages. To keep our students in state, the answer is simple. We must make our universities more affordable.
Recently, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced a new strategy to encourage Illinois students to stay in state by giving free tuition to families making $61,000 or less. This is a fine idea, but it doesn’t get to the crux of the high tuition dilemma. The reason tuitions are going up is because the cost to operate our public universities has risen exponentially over the last few decades. We have more university employees than ever and most of these employees are not professors who are actually in front of students. They are faceless administrative employees that pull in large salaries and generous pensions, all on the backs of students and taxpayers. I would advocate reducing the number of public university employees that do not work directly with students. This in turn would lower the cost of tuition. Our schools need to evaluate whether positions, especially those administrative in nature, are truly needed. The tuition costs must be lowered or Illinois is only going to continue to lose its best and brightest.
What laws, if any, should the Legislature pass to address the problem of gun violence?
Biela: I believe the 2nd amendment is a constitutional right that should not be abridged. However, I also believe in common sense regulations that ensure for proper availability and use by society. For instance, I support the recent legislation signed by Governor Rauner that removes guns from the hands of those that are unstable and could be a risk to society, while at the same time not impacting the vast majority of gun owners that are law abiding citizens. More importantly, all current gun laws should be enforced with fidelity before determining what new laws, if any, need to be considered by the General Assembly.
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?
Biela: I do not believe in fair scheduling laws. This is a classic example of government overreach into the private sector. We live in a free society where employer and employee choose to offer employment and accept employment of their own accords. There is no forced work compulsion in the United States. A worker does not have to take a job if they do not like the wages, the hours or the scheduling. As long as workers have a safe working condition and their welfare is not at risk, an employer can schedule employees as he or she sees fit. This is how the free market works. The more the government meddles in the private sector, there is often a negative impact to businesses in the form of higher costs which in turn hurts both employees and consumers.
Should recreational marijuana be legalized in Illinois? Please explain.
Biela: I am in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana for adults over the age of 21 years old. In comparison to alcohol, I believe marijuana to be similar in effect to the casual user. We need to come to grips with the fact that marijuana is no more harmful as alcohol and the decades old stigma toward its use does not justify the costly prohibition. Illinois would benefit greatly in varied ways from legalization. First, if marijuana was legal it could be regulated by the government ensuring safe distribution and sale with a safer product being sold to the public. Also, since it would be taken off the street as an illegal commodity, legalization would free up law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Finally, given the economic woes Illinois is facing, the tax revenue from the legal sale of marijuana would be a boon to the state. It’s been estimated that Illinois could pull in over $500 million in taxes from marijuana sales.
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?
Biela: The opioid crisis that is sweeping not only our state, but the nation is heartbreaking and leaves devastated families in its wake. I know first-hand. My brother-in-law, Bill, overdosed on heroin and died several year ago. He left behind a young son and family that loved him. He was smart and skilled at his job as a dental technician, but unfortunately fought a losing battle with addiction that stole his sense of self-worth and his ability to make sound decisions.
I advocate for continuing on Governor Rauner’s “State of Illinois Opioid Action Plan”. This overarching and detailed plan tackles such areas safer prescribing and dispensing regulations, education and stigma reduction, monitoring and communication, access to care and rehabilitation, assisting those that have been recently released from prison and have an increased chance of overdose and rescue response for when overdoses occur. I know my brother-in-law would have benefited from reforms in these areas especially the idea of assisting folks like him who had been tangled up in the criminal justice system and need help going forward.
Another component of the crisis is the connection between lack of economic opportunities and opioid use. Poverty and unemployment rates are highly correlated with the prevalence of opioids use. Communities that suffer from economic hardships have much higher rates of opioid prescriptions, hospitalizations, and overdose deaths. The more that can be done to stimulate the economy and increase the overall number of jobs opportunities; the more likely the opioid usage will decrease especially in disadvantaged areas.
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?
Biela: The Future Energy Jobs Act was a success in its own right simply by the fact that it brought both sides of the aisle together to not only increase clean energy usage, but also provide more jobs for Illinoisans. The Act also demonstrated compromise by understanding that even with an increase in clean energy the nuclear plants in the Quad Cities still needed to be reinvested in. Consumers were protected from spiked rate increases that might come from new energy initiatives by a rate cap of 25 cents a month. Clean energy advocates are hopeful that those caps won’t even be necessary because with the more efficient and cleaner energy, prices will actually begin to drop. This Act was ground-breaking and innovative. I think the General Assembly should evaluate its success or failure before taking on another major environmental policy. Sometimes it is prudent to be patient and watch a tree bear its fruit before jumping ahead with additional action.
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?
Biela: Medicaid rolls have ballooned in recent years to the point that a quarter of all Illinoisans are enrolled. This comes at an incredible cost. Medicaid spending increased 141% from 2000 to 2015 and continues to do so with each passing year. It currently makes up almost a quarter of the state budget. The sad thing is the rolls have often expanded with folks that shouldn’t have qualified to start with and truly needy recipients are having trouble accessing services. For instance, because of the increased rolls, access to doctors is more difficult. According to a study by the Department of Health and Human Services, 56% of Medicaid primary care doctors and 43% of specialists weren’t available to new patients. Likewise, many legitimate enrollees were denied access to new revolutionary drugs because there wasn’t enough money to cover the costs for all eligible patients.
To ensure the long-term viability of Medicaid in Illinois and to make sure those in need receive services, there needs to be a thorough check on eligibility. If people do not meet the income requirement or have moved outside of Illinois, they need to be taken off the state rolls. Unfortunately, there is much Medicaid fraud in Illinois and it needs to be rooted out.
I am in favor of managed care plans for Medicaid beneficiaries. Medicaid enrollees should have the access to the same insurance plans Illinoisans in the private sector have. Once again those most in need among use will get the care and services they deserve, but for this to happen the system must be audited and protected from fraud.
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?
Biela: No inmate within the Illinois correctional system should be abused physically, mentally or emotionally while incarcerated. I do think it is a legitimate concern that inmates have access to services and opportunities that will benefit them when they are released. It should be a goal of our correctional system to lower the recidivism rate. That said, while it is important inmates are not abused and that they have the chance to improve their lot in life while behind bars, I do not thing that this is a priority issue for our state. We need to get our fiscal house in order first and foremost.
As far what action should be taken by the legislature, we should guard against any outside business taking advantage of an inmate’s skills and work. No inmate should be used for virtually slave labor for the private sector. I would like to see inmates employed doing work on behalf of the state or non-profits organizations.
Should the state restore the practice of parole for people sentenced to long terms? Why or why not?
Biela: To be able to answer this question, we need to qualify what type of offenders would be eligible for parole. If we’re talking about violent criminals, then the answer is no. These offenders are paying a price to society for their actions and might be a danger if released early. If non-violent criminals such as drug offenders are in question, then yes, I could be in favor of parole. Our jails are clogged with folks that have gotten themselves in trouble with illicit drugs both in usage and dealing. I believe there is a much better chance at rehabilitation for those serving drug charges than other crimes. That said, if someone on drug charges has also committed violent crimes, they should not be given parole. The practice of parole should selective and conservative.
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.