Facing grim financial times in state government, local senators and representatives Monday called for greater investment in education, cuts in wasteful government spending, and, after decades of delay, a fix for the chronic structural deficits plaguing the state. And, the group of five Democrats expressed hope for better relations with a governor of their own political party.

About 50 people turned out at the Oak Park Library for a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Oak Park and River Forest. Officials in attendance were state senators Don Harmon (39th) and Kimberly Lightford (4th) and representatives Karen Yarbrough (7th), LaShawn Ford (8th) and Deborah Graham (78th). They answered written questions from the audience.

Yarbrough insisted on increasing funding for education, capital improvements and other essential services in the state, a stance on which her colleagues agreed.

“When I think of the last 30 years, what’s been on the table is that we don’t fund education adequately. Why can’t we get it done?” said Yarbrough, who also warned against “throwing money at things.”

“We need to also have accountability as well. When you’re tossing money at something I’m looking for a return. If we’re putting more money in schools, doing a better job with infrastructure and we’ve got highly-qualified teachers, I want those kids to come out of high school with a decent education.”

Concerning education, Lightford said more state money should go toward higher education, and expressed support for charter schools. Ford expressed support for a comprehensive high school in Austin.

Harmon touted Senate Bill 2288, which would raise the state’s income tax while also reducing property taxes. The measure would help fund education, health care and capital projects, Harmon said. He added that a reduction in the state’s sales tax would help reduce the financial burden placed on business. Overall, Harmon called for fiscal responsibility in state government while the country is in recession. Graham mentioned pending legislation that would place a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures in the state that would help homeowners.

One of the first questions asked at Monday’s forum dealt with the state’s $2 billion budget deficit and where to raise revenue and make cuts. Ford, who has a background running a real estate brokerage, stressed reducing waste in state government before raising taxes.

“In these tough economic times, one thing I’ve learned in running a business is the first thing you do is look at wasteful spending and you make sure you cut whatever waste is out there,” he said. “If we do that, we can start on the right track.”

As for the deficit, Harmon called this one of the bleakest fiscal periods for the state that he could remember.

“When Rep. Graham and I took office six years ago, we had as much as a $5 billion budget deficit and we’re seemingly right back there. We still have not wrestled with our structural deficit. For many, many years we just coasted by. And I think the time is now to deal with that structural issue.”

Officials were asked about possible rules changes in the state senate under incoming Senate leader John Cullerton. The Chicago Democrat is currently the majority whip and will replace Senate-President Emil Jones, who’s retiring. Officials were asked if a change in senate rules would empower lawmakers by reducing power in the leadership.

Lightford and Harmon both expect some rule changes but without reducing power within the leadership. Each Democratic lawmaker also expressed hope to have a better working relationship with Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the next legislative session which begins in January 2009.