Photo by Dermot Connolly
State Sen. Bill Cunningham (D-18th) makes a point as state Sen. Michael Hasting (D-19th) and state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th) wait their turn during the 11th Annual Breakfast With Your Legislators held last Thursday at St. Xavier University, 3700 W. 103rd St., Chicago.
Six elected officials shared insights on local and national issues with residents during St. Xavier University’s 11th annual Breakfast With Your Legislators last Thursday.
Former state Senator Edward Maloney moderated the discussion with Cong. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd), state senators Bill Cunningham (D-18th) and Mike Hastings (D-19th), state Rep. Kelly Burke (D-36th), Cook County Commissioner John Daley (D-11th) and Chicago Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who represents neighborhoods around where SXU is located at 3700 W.103rd St., Chicago.
When asked how the outcome of the presidential race might affect Congress, Lipinski said, “Most polling suggests that Hillary Clinton will be the next president, and the Democrats could retake the House. No one knows about the Senate.” He said that both Clinton and Donald Trump have spoken about the need for a comprehensive infrastructure bill, so he is hopeful that will be passed no matter who wins.
The Transportation Committee member said that because both Republicans and Democrats back an infrastructure bill to fund road and rail improvements nationwide, the divided country might come together over it. But he is still skeptical.
“We thought we saw division before, but this is even worse. It used to be that people would look around after the election and see which party is in control where, and figure out ways to work together. But now, it is what can we do to get control in two years time,” said the congressman.
He said divided government has led to stagnation. “And I don’t like that because I got into politics to get things done,” he said.
The legislators also addressed the pros and cons of a statewide referendum on Nov. 8 ballots asking if the “Safe Roads Amendment” should be added to the Illinois Constitution. It would require all money raised from transportation, such as motor fuel taxes, tolls and airline fees, to only be used for transportation projects. It requires 60 percent approval for passage.
Lipinski didn’t voice an opinion on the state referendum but noted that the federal gas tax hasn’t been raised in 23 years because “people don’t believe it will be used for roads.”
Cunningham said he supports it, because the state hasn’t had a transportation bill since 2009 and “we cannot afford to spend down these transportation funds.”
Hastings, who sits on House appropriation committees, called it a “reactionary measure,” but said he could see its pros and cons. He said it would protect union jobs but “if we start tying monies up, we may not have those resources available” at budget time.
Lipinski also addressed the chronic problem of trains blocking crossings and causing traffic jams in Chicago and suburbs such as Evergreen Park.
“We know there are going to be trains but there is no need to have gates blocking crossings for no reason, or having trains idling behind people’s houses. These are quality of life issues,” said Lipinski. He said the railroads have made some improvements since the federal Surface Transportation Board began working with him, Burke, Cunningham and O’Shea on the issue.
When the state legislators were asked how the election might affect the budget crisis in Springfield, they said the problem was with Gov. Rauner.
“You could take an optimistic view, that the fact we were able to come up with a stopgap budget in June to bring us through the end of the year shows promise. We could do the same in January. Also, if the governor runs again in two years, he will have to have something concrete to show,” said Cunningham.
But considering that Rauner has invested $30 million of his own money to elect allies, Cunningham said “the pessimistic view” of having stopgap budgets until 2018 might be likely.
“We will only have a budget if we only talk about the budget,” said Cunningham, blaming Rauner’s insistence on including his “turnaround agenda” in the budget. He said eliminating the bargaining power of unions and limiting workers compensation would severely hurt the middle class.
“We really are in a difficult time. It is an epic struggle,” agreed Hastings “We have never before had governors hold the budget hostage to get their platform through.”
Hastings said numerous social programs have been slashed, and Burke called Rauner’s actions “an attack on higher education, especially four-year universities.” Citing cuts to Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants for low-income students as an example, she said this past year, the state awarded MAP grants to students but didn’t pay the universities until the money was freed up in April.
The Cook County Board’s Oct. 26 decision to raise the minimum wage outside Chicago to $13 was also discussed. “I think it was the moral thing to do,” said Daley. “There are not too many people who could live on $8.25 an hour.”
Starting in July 2017, the minimum wage countywide will be $10, and will increase by a $1 each following year until 2020. Chicago passed a similar ordinance in 2014, raising the minimum wage to $13 by 2019.
“I feel a lot better about it now than I did last year,” said O’Shea, who was against the city’s ordinance, because no matter how well-intentioned, he said it hurt communities like his that border suburbs.
As for term limits, Burke said, “It sounds good, but what that means is there is no institutional knowledge. It takes time to learn about the budget and how and why things are done.” She said there would be more support for limiting leadership positions. She and Hastings are running unopposed for re-election on Nov. 8, but “if you don’t like me, I can be voted out,” she said.
Brennan Leahy, of Oak Lawn, said he was glad he was able to fit in the meeting around his work schedule.
“As a citizen, I think coming to these types of things is important. People can complain, but they have to meet their representatives and get more active in their communities,” he said.