On Jan. 17, state Sen. Daniel Biss appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for the Democratic nomination for Illinois Governor in the March 2018 primary:
I’m Daniel Biss. I’m state senator in the 9th District. I live in Evanston with my wife Karen our two children, Elliot and Theodore. Before that I was in the House. I worked as a community organizer trying to help elect progressive candidates and to fight against the Iraq War and before that I taught math at the University of Chicago for six years.
We have a state government right now that is not working for most people and we have a society where the very wealthy and the connected pretty much get whatever they want and the rest of us have a harder and harder time to get by. So the question is, are we going to put state government on the side of ordinary people again? We need to fix our tax system. Our tax system in Illinois is punishingly unfair to middle class families like mine and to the working poor. It allows the wealthiest residents to get off without paying their share and therefore we cannot fund our schools properly. It’s time for us to build a fair tax system by enacting a progressive income tax, taxing financial transactions to the Board of Trade using the funds to bring down property taxes and fund our schools properly and provide universal to access to healthcare. If we do these things our state government will actually be creating a situation where ordinary working families have a shot again.
We need in Illinois to repeal the unfair flat tax provision of the constitution which has made it impossible for ordinary families to both have an education that’s excellent and a tax bill they can afford. That’s a system that got designed in Illinois by self interested people. By people who knew that the state that worked for just them would be a state where their children would have a great education and the rest of ours wouldn’t. It’s time to repeal that and build a state for the rest of us.
The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois. Biss submitted the following answers to our questionnaire:
TOPIC: Key challenges
QUESTION: What are the two biggest problems facing Illinois and what would you do about them?
ANSWER: The two biggest problems facing Illinois are a broken budget and a system that’s rigged to help the wealthy and well-connected get ahead while the rest of us fall further behind. For decades, Democrat and Republican administrations alike have failed to pass balanced budgets that adequately fund our crucial priorities, creating a ballooning debt crisis, a woefully underfunded pension system, and an exodus of middle-class and working families. Families who remain suffer the consequences of underfunded schools, crumbling infrastructure, and social services and community programs in desperate need of support. Balancing our budget is about more than just the numbers—it’s about showing Illinois families that we support them, and that they can trust our state government to provide opportunity and stability, this year and in years to come.
Middle-class families like mine are constantly hearing that there just isn’t enough money to go around, and that budget cuts are a necessary consequence of exorbitant spending in years past. We’re facing stagnant wages even as costs of living increase, from weekly groceries to college tuition. At the same time, we’re hearing that our economy is growing and we’re seeing skyrocketing corporate profits. It’s clear that most people aren’t seeing the benefits of this growth—and that’s because our economic and political systems are set up by and for the wealthy and well-connected. From a tax system riddled with corporate loopholes and exemptions for the ultra-rich to a political system overrun by insiders who can either fund their own campaigns or court wealthy donors, our state isn’t set up to work for the rest of us.
Balancing our budget and building economic and political systems that work for middle-class and working families will require serious reforms. We need to demand that corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share by amending our constitution to allow for a progressive income tax, taxing financial transactions, and closing corporate loopholes. When allocating these new revenue sources in a balanced budget, we must concentrate investments in the low income communities and communities of color that have faced decades of disinvestment.
We must fix our broken school funding formula to guarantee equitable educational opportunity to every student in every district. We must reform our broken property tax system, from appeals to assessments, to increase transparency and accountability and support ordinary homeowners. We need to make healthcare universal, make tuition free for students who attend public colleges and universities, and move towards 100 percent clean energy. And we must restructure our political system at its core, from publicly financing elections to expanding ballot access to grassroots selection of the Democratic Party chair.
Running for: Democratic nomination for Illinois Governor
Political/civic background: In addition to my time in the Illinois House (2011-2012) and the Illinois Senate (2013-present) I served on the Evanston Environment Board, as the president of the Democratic Party of Evanston, as a board member of the Indo-American Democratic Organization, and as a member of the social action committee of Temple Beth Israel.
Occupation: Illinois State Senator
Education: BA in mathematics from Harvard University, Ph.D in mathematics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Campaign website: DanielBiss.com
TOPIC: Red ink and taxes
QUESTION: Even after raising the personal state income tax rate to 4.95 percent, Illinois has $9 billion in unpaid bills. The state also must pay billions of dollars over the next 12 years to service the debt on $6 billion borrowed to cover previous unpaid bills. That’s a problem. What’s your solution? Under what circumstances, if any, would you support a higher income tax?
ANSWER: The bill backlog is irresponsible and unsustainable. Rather than continuing to increase the tax burden on middle-class and working families, we must demand that the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes by creating a progressive income tax, closing the carried interest loophole, and taxing financial transactions. I have fought for all of these policies as a legislator, espoused them on the campaign trail, and will continue fighting for progressive revenue sources when I’m governor.
At the same time, I voted to raise the income tax rate this spring. I was forced to choose between raising taxes and allowing a devastating budget impasse to continue to harm our education system and human service providers, and I had to make a difficult choice regardless of the political consequences. I’m running for governor because I’m tired of lose-lose situations—because I believe that when there aren’t any good options on the table, it’s time to expand our thinking and create new options. When I’m governor, I’ll work with lawmakers and stakeholders to find the best solution for our state and working families.
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TOPIC: Underfunded pensions
QUESTION: Illinois has $130 billion of unfunded pension liability. Do you support re-amortizing this debt? Do you support a constitutional amendment that would reduce the liability? Please explain.
ANSWER: We must give Illinois workers and retirees the pensions we’ve promised them. It is unacceptable to reduce pension payments because our state government has been poorly managed, kicking the can down the road rather than making regular payments on what we owe.
I’m open to discussing any proposed payment schedule, but a plan must be based in actuarial calculations rather than political convenience. When we compare policies and outcomes associated with Illinois’ various pension systems, it’s clear that the best way to ensure sustainable funding is to create constitutionally-protected binding mechanisms to ensure actuarially responsible payments every year rather than trust leaders to find the money in the budget.
TOPIC: Gun laws
QUESTION: Do you support a state ban on gun silencers? Should all gun dealers in Illinois be licensed by the state? Should family members be empowered to petition the courts for the temporary confiscation of guns from mentally or emotionally disturbed people who may be a danger to themselves or others?
ANSWER: I support a state ban on gun silencers, sensible gun dealer licensing legislation, and policies to empower family members to petition the courts for the temporary confiscation of guns from mentally or emotionally disturbed people who may be a danger to themselves or others. I am a co-sponsor of the Gun Dealer Licensing Act in the Senate, and have supported common-sense gun policies in the past. I also believe we must restrict the number of guns that can be purchased within a set time span; ban bump stocks, assault weapons, and expanded magazines; and enact a Lethal Violence Order of Protection to disqualify domestic abusers from owning firearms.
At the same time, to take on the crisis at its roots, we must treat gun violence as a public health issue. This means funding violence prevention programs and intervention services, investing in our communities, and fighting for universal healthcare, which includes mental health treatment.
QUESTION: As governor, how would you ensure the long-term viability of the state’s Medicaid program? Do you support continued Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act? Should the state continue on a path toward managed care for Medicaid beneficiaries? Should everyone be permitted to buy into Medicaid?
ANSWER: To ensure the viability of the state’s Medicaid program, we must turn to progressive revenue sources such as a progressive income tax and a financial transaction tax and look for opportunities to close corporate tax loopholes such as the carried interest loophole.
I support continued Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act but, especially given the latest tax plan, don’t believe we can rely on the federal government to protect our healthcare—it’s crucial that we take action in Illinois now to protect access to affordable healthcare.
The state’s movement toward managed care for Medicaid beneficiaries has been rocky. We need robust policies to ensure transparency and accountability so managed care organizations do not negatively impact access to care.
Lastly, I believe everyone should be able to buy into Medicaid, but do not believe a public option is not sufficient to guarantee every Illinoisan access to affordable healthcare.
I believe healthcare is a human right, and that the only way to guarantee that right to every Illinoisan is to enact Medicare-for-All at the state level. I’ve supported this policy since I first ran for office in 2008, and it’s a central tenet of my campaign for governor today.
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TOPIC: Affordable Care Act
QUESTION: Under the ACA, 650,000 Illinoisans gained health insurance coverage. If the program is abolished or diminished by Congress, what action would you take, if any, to maintain health insurance coverage for these Illinoisans? Where would you find the money?
ANSWER: Congressional Republicans’ attacks on the Affordable Care Act are unconscionable and a grave threat to Illinoisans, yet Rauner has done nothing to defend us. We can’t afford to stay quiet, and we can’t wait for a repeal to start passing policies here in Illinois—we need to be prepared for any outcome. That’s why I introduced and passed a law banning insurance companies from discriminating against Illinoisans with preexisting conditions and fought hard to expand Medicaid in Illinois.
There’s much more to do to guarantee Illinoisans have access to healthcare, regardless of a potential repeal at the federal level. I will continue to codify important protections of the Affordable Care Act in Illinois law and will continue fighting for Medicare-for-All. We can also anticipate the potential costs that would result from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare-for-All, and other healthcare policies, and create progressive revenue sources such as a progressive income tax and a financial transaction tax and close the carried interest loophole to ensure the revenue streams are in place when additional costs arise.
TOPIC: College student exodus
QUESTION: Illinois is one of the largest exporters of college students in the country. What would you do to encourage the best and brightest young people in Illinois to attend college here at home? Does Illinois have too many state universities, as some have argued?
ANSWER: To encourage Illinois high school students to attend our public colleges and universities, we must fully fund every school. We can’t continue cutting programs, failing to deliver MAP grants we’ve promised, and raising tuition rather than pursuing innovative and lasting reforms to our tax system. By passing progressive revenue sources and limiting skyrocketing administrative salaries, we can ensure full course offerings and extracurricular activities, guarantee good wages and benefits for professors and other campus workers, and eliminate tuition entirely to give every student from every background the opportunity to attend.
I do not believe that Illinois has toomany state universities. I do think that universities can better coordinate with one another, but the fundamental problem with our higher education system is not rooted the number of universities or the coordination between them—it’s about a lack of state support. When we pass a budget that fully funds higher education and eliminates tuition, we can truly transform our public colleges and universities without closing schools and limiting opportunities.
TOPIC: University oversight
QUESTION: Failed or fired public university presidents have received big payouts. Do you have any plans to consolidate or otherwise reorganize governance of the state’s university system?
ANSWER: Illinois public universities have been among the greatest victims of Bruce Rauner’s catastrophic budget cuts. To repair the damage done over the past three years, as well as problems that originated much earlier, I would begin by working with communities anchored by our universities to identify strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. I am committed to maintaining our state’s proud history of good quality, affordable higher education, available to Illinoisans in every corner of the state. Done improperly, any plans for modernization or reorganization runs the risk of furthering disinvestment, or being perceived as doing so. As governor, I’ll make sure our schools get the resources to meet needs in their communities and in our state at large.
TOPIC: Clean air regulations
QUESTION: The Rauner administration has proposed scrapping limits on the rate of air pollution from a fleet of eight coal plants in central and southern Illinois owned by Dynegy Inc. Instead, the state would impose annual caps on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emitted by the fleet. Do you support this softening of emissions standards? If not, are you concerned coal plants could be closed and union workers could lose their jobs? Also, how would you support the adoption of clean energy, such as wind and solar, and energy conservation?
ANSWER: I do not support this softening of emission standards, which are especially egregious in light of Trump’s attacks on federal environmental policies and international agreements. Illinois must take this opportunity to lead on clean energy by investing in the latest technology and upholding our commitments under policies like the Clean Power Plan and US Climate Alliance, even when Washington won’t. We’ll reduce our pollution levels and contributions to global climate change while also making smart investments in the technologies of the future rather than clinging to an industry of the past.
At the same time, I am concerned about how closing coal plants will cost union workers their jobs. It is imperative that we guarantee economic opportunity to workers who once relied on the fossil fuel industry by centering our renewable energy investments in those regions, creating jobs and job training programs, and making sure that our high schools and community colleges are preparing young people for work in the clean energy economy.
I’ve fought for clean energy investments in the Illinois legislature, most notably sponsoring a PACE financing bill to allow municipalities to establish green Special Service Areas and provide low-cost loans enabling commercial properties to invest in energy and water efficiency and other renewable energy improvements. PACE financing will result in a meaningful overall increase in our state’s renewable energy investments, and I will continue fighting for policies like this as governor.
TOPIC: School funding
QUESTION: Under the state’s new school-funding model, Illinois will need $6.2 billion more to fully fund K-12 schools. Will you commit to full funding? Where will you get the money?
ANSWER: Yes, I will commit to fully funding our schools. We must also overhaul the broken school funding formula and decrease our reliance on property taxes as a school funding source to guarantee that every student in every neighborhood gets a quality education. To raise revenue, I will enact progressive revenue policies such as a progressive income tax and financial transaction tax and will close the carried interest loophole.
TOPIC: Wage equality
QUESTION: What is your position on the vetoed Illinois Wage Equity Act?
ANSWER: I sponsored HB2462 in the Senate and was angry and disappointed when Bruce Rauner vetoed this common-sense measure to interrupt cycles of wage discrimination. I will continue fighting for this policy and others, such as legislation I’ve co-sponsored to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and expand liability for wage discrimination beyond direct supervisors.
TOPIC: Roads and bridges
QUESTION: How do you plan to address Illinois’ huge backlog of infrastructure construction and repair needs, including for roads, bridges, waterways and mass transit? Do you support an increased gas tax — and/or other taxes and fees — to finance infrastructure improvements, including public transit?
ANSWER: Illinois is long-overdue for a capital bill to support infrastructure construction and repair needs. In passing a capital bill, we must focus our investments on the low income communities and communities of color that have faced decades of disinvestment.
Even beyond modernizing roads and bridges and expanding public transit systems to connect our communities efficiently and sustainably, we must ensure that our water infrastructure removes toxins, supports agriculture, and is prepared to withstand the effects of climate change. We must also invest in public buildings and efforts both private and public to enhance energy efficiency. Lastly, we must expand broadband access to ensure that every community can benefit from equitable economic growth, including modern emergency services and technological support in schools.
A capital bill should be backed by a revenue source that is both sustainable and progressive. All too often, we’ve seen projects stalled as funding runs out and promised infrastructure investments that never materialize. While it is sensible to pay for infrastructure investments through revenue streams that are related to the use of these projects, we must also make sure that revenue sources are fair and do not unduly burden those with the least ability to pay.
TOPIC: Displaced workers
QUESTION: Jobs in Illinois are being lost to high-tech automation and artificial intelligence. It won’t even be long before cars drive themselves. Meanwhile, many other jobs, notably in the retail sector, are being lost to online alternatives. Do you have a plan to help guide displaced workers into new careers?
ANSWER: Automation and artificial intelligence have the potential to benefit our society greatly, but only when we tax corporations and the wealthy to generate the revenue necessary to invest in our communities and create new jobs. We’re already seeing workers losing their jobs in a 21st century economy, and it is the government’s responsibility to pursue innovative solutions to this problem and to build an economy that supports workers, not just corporations and the wealthy.
To ensure that automation does not exacerbate income inequality as corporations reap higher profits with significantly lower labor costs, and as workers lose their jobs, we should enact a “robot tax” on corporate income that results from automation. Revenue from the tax would go towards creating new jobs in communities that have lost jobs from automation, and to ensure that workers are well-trained for the job opportunities that arise in a 21st century economy.
TOPIC: Manufacturing jobs
QUESTION: Since the recession ended in 2009, neighboring states have added tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs while Illinois has not. What will you do to spur Illinois manufacturing?
ANSWER: The decline of manufacturing in Illinois has had devastating effects on communities across the state. When a manufacturing plant closes or leaves an area, the consequences ripple throughout the community as workers lose their jobs. Many leave in pursuit of economic opportunity, pulling communities apart and affecting the local economy. Those who stay experience the effects of lower property values, resulting reductions in school funding and social services, and less activity at local businesses. These problems can span generations—and it’s imperative that the government prevent this cycle by spurring manufacturing growth.
Encouraging manufacturing starts with passing a progressive budget every year. Lurching from crisis to crisis and failing to pass a balanced budget or bring any semblance of financial stability, the Rauner administration has done significant damage to the business climate on this state. Manufacturers need to have confidence in our state’s economy if they are to do business here. At the same time, even before Bruce Rauner’s budget crisis, our state failed to make necessary investments in infrastructure and job training. With modern public transit and well-maintained roads, waterways, and bridges, it will be easier for manufacturing to come to and stay in Illinois.
We must also consider the types of manufacturing jobs that are available in a 21st century economy and make sure our high schools and community colleges are giving students the preparation they need to succeed, including strong STEM programs in high school and college, specialized programs at community colleges, apprenticeships, and more. With a clear understanding of the skills necessary to thrive in advanced manufacturing jobs, we can give students realistic expectations of modern manufacturing work and guarantee companies who come to Illinois a strong workforce.
TOPIC: Election funding
QUESTION: Record amounts of money are pouring into top judicial races in Illinois and across the country. Is this a problem? Do you favor the public financing of judicial races?
ANSWER: Yes, it is a problem that we have record amounts of money in judicial races and yes, I support public financing of judicial races. In judicial races and as well as races for every other elected office in Illinois, our campaign finance system has created a destructive political climate in which candidates are often either personally wealthy or dependent on big donors. This deprives middle-class and working families of representation as they are effectively barred from running their own campaigns yet ignored by their representatives, many of whom feel they must spend their time fundraising rather than meeting with constituents to run competitive campaigns.
I support public financing of elections up and down the ballot, including in gubernatorial elections, and passed a public financing “small donor match” bill out of the Senate to advance this goal. Only when we reform our campaign finance system will we build a truly representative government: that’s why I will continue fighting for campaign finance reform on the campaign trail, when I’m governor, and until we build a system that is truly responsive to every voter, not just the wealthy few.
TOPIC: Opioid crisis
QUESTION: What role does a governor’s power to commute sentences play in the overall effort to improve the quality of criminal justice in Illinois? Do you believe sentencing may have been overly harsh — or not tough enough — during the earlier years of the so-called “war on drugs.” And we now face a renewed war on drugs — this time opioids. Is the greatly increased use of opioids a criminal crisis or public health crisis?
ANSWER: For decades, our drug policies have torn communities apart, relying on mass incarceration rather than rehabilitation and investment. Policies have been applied unevenly across lines of race, class, and geography, compounding the effects of chronic disinvestment and creating divisions between government and the people they serve.
A governor’s power to commute sentences is a vital way to improve the quality of the criminal justice system. We’ve seen countless instances of commutations remedying unjust sentences of years and even decades past, ensuring that incarcerated people derive the benefits of the latest methods of collecting and analyzing evidence, and preventing further punishment for outdated policies and beliefs.
I do believe that sentencing during the war on drugs has been overly harsh, especially in black and brown communities. We must end systems of mass incarceration that tear our communities apart, and overhaul our criminal justice system to focus on rehabilitation and community investment rather than criminalization.
Now, as we face the opioid crisis, we must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past. When we treat opioid use as a public health crisis rather than a criminal crisis, we can begin to pursue the holistic solutions that will prove effective and finally bring relief to individuals and communities who need support. Policies should include reducing prescriptions, investing in prevention programs and community health centers, ensuring that our criminal justice system focuses on rehabilitation, fighting for Medicare-for-All, and more.
TOPIC: A model gov
QUESTION: Which past governor of Illinois do you most admire and why? Which governor from any state would you most like to emulate?
ANSWER: I admire Henry Horner, who served as Illinois governor during eight difficult years of the Great Depression and managed to run a government that provided for the needs of the vulnerable and poor while also taking on the fabled Chicago machine and its patronage system—and winning.
The governor from any state I most admire is, of course, Wisconsin’s great governor: Fighting Bob La Follette. He was famously effective in fighting against the concentration of corporate power, political corruption, and sexism, and in fighting for workers’ rights. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Wisconsin still had governors like that? Or Illinois?
Check out our profiles on other candidates in this race: