Getting the state’s financial picture in order is a high priority among the Springfield legislators representing Austin and surrounding western suburbs.
State Senators Don Harmon and Kimberly Lightford, and Representatives Camille Lilly and La Shawn Ford spoke to AustinTalks recently about their priorities in this fall legislative session that’s now winding down.
Harmon and Lightford are assistant majority leaders in the Senate; all four are Democrats. Harmon particularly noted fixing the state’s finances. The state is $13 billion in debt-that could reach $15 billion by next summer when the new fiscal year begins. The state has also fallen months behind in making payments to businesses, social service agencies and other organizations, a number of them in Austin.
Harmon said there will be strong efforts to raise additional revenue, but lawmakers also have to demonstrate that government can “continue to cut what government cannot afford.” He’s also hopeful that there will be bipartisan cooperation in cost cutting in the Senate but unsure of what will happen in the House.
Harmon said casinos could come to Chicago and gambling may be expanded in the suburbs. But that may not help plug all the holes in the capital budget, which pays for roads, bridges and schools. The state needs to create an even stronger atmosphere that encourages job creation, Harmon added, including incentives in the private sector to hire more workers.
To help provide jobs in the long term, Harmon suggested for the state to do more to fund education.
“Sound educational systems are the key to long-term economic development. There’s no substitute for that,” said the senator, who’s served in that chamber since 2003 and also represents neighboring Oak Park.
According to Ford, one way to create jobs is to provide incentives for banks to offer very small loans, called microloans, to ex-offenders who want to start their own business. Many ex-offenders are unemployable, said Ford, who was first elected to the Illinois House in 2006. “With a microloan, they can qualify to start a business. They may hire more ex-offenders.”
In addition, Ford would like to see lottery money go to scholarships so elementary and secondary students can attend private schools. He stopped short, however, of calling them vouchers.
A Chicago Public Schools report released in September found that about three-quarters of Austin’s elementary and high schools scored a grade of “D” or worse for the 2009-2010 school year. Eight of the neighborhood’s 19 elementary schools, and one of its four high schools, got an “F.”
The dropout rate for students in Austin is higher than any other Chicago neighborhood, Ford said. The money would provide a way for students to succeed on a variety of levels.
“We continue to lose kids,” Ford said. “We cannot wait; something must be done to help our students.”
Another critical issue for lawmakers will be redrawing the boundaries of each of the state’s 177 legislative districts, Lightford said. The complex effort to redraw the boundaries of the Illinois General Assembly and the state’s congressional districts is done every 10 years to coincide with shifts in population; the last one took place in 2000. The next remap cannot begin until the results of the 2010 Census are unveiled, which is expected in the spring.
But Lightford expressed concern that a remap could push the boundaries of hers and Harmon’s districts out further west into DuPage County and north into more the conservative areas of Elk Grove Village Township. Each state Senate district includes the districts of two state representatives. Lightford’s district is associated with Ford’s 8th and, in addition to the 7th that’s represented by Democrat Karen Yarbrough of Maywood. Harmon’s district is associated with Lilly’s 78th, as well as the 77th, currently represented by Republican Angelo Saviano of Elmwood Park.
Concerning Medicaid, Lightford said she’ll push for a $20 increase-from $30 to $50 a month-in the personal needs allowance for patients in the program living in nursing homes. The allowance, which allows patients to buy anything from stamps to cosmetics and other incidental items, has not been increased since 1985.
Lightford also looked to push for passage of a bill that would require each hospital in Illinois to set minimum staff-to-patient ratios in a unit of a hospital during each shift in that unit. “This would make sure that patients are safe and would provide for more cost-efficient patient care,” said Lightford, who’s served in the Senate since 1998.
Lilly, appointed this spring to replace Deborah Graham who is now the 29th Ward alderman, said she is learning as much as she can about the ins and outs of Springfield. At the same time, she hopes to start a series of meetings with district residents to learn about their concerns and needs.
“Constituent meetings” on Monday nights can be scheduled, as can a “coffee, tea and talk,” she said.
The first-term representative added that her focus will likely be on economic development, education and health care. She knows that her new job will be challenging and that could be compounded by how much bipartisan cooperation will be reached
“Times are tough, but we’ll figure it all out,” she said.
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