Though they are political opponents in the upcoming primary election, a mostly Republican field of candidates that showed up for a forum Monday night at Latzer Library in Highland agreed on a lot.
"Ridiculous" was a common adjective of the evening, which was used by several of the all-male field to label a host of topics. The term was used to describe taxation, which all agreed was too high. It was also brought out in discussions over what candidates said was a bias by General Assembly to give perks to Chicago to the detriment of Southern Illinois.
House Bill 40, legislation that Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law in September that provides state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions, also drew the ire of the GOP candidates.
Candidates in two Republican primaries for seats in the General Assembly highlighted the evening.
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State Rep. Charlie Meier of Okawville, the incumbent in the 108th Illinois House District, and Don Moore of Troy, a retired Marine Corps major and Madison County Board member who is challenging Meier in the March 20 GOP primary, were both present.
Four Republican candidates for the 54th Illinois Senate District were also on hand. The seat was left open when Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, decided not to run for re-election after pledging to self-impose term limits. Candidates at the forum were Jason Plummer of Edwardsville, vice president of RP Lumber; Ben Stratemeyer of Centralia, a certified public accountant and chairman of the Marion County Republican Party; George Barber of Greenville, men's basketball coach at Greenville University; and Rafael Him of New Baden, a 22-year Air Force veteran who has served on the Clinton County Board and as a trustee in New Baden.
The only Democratic candidate in the room was Kevin Gaither of Charleston, a tutor who is running for Congress in the 15th District, a seat currently occupied by John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.
The event was sponsored by the Highland Chamber of Commerce and Highland Jaycees. Highland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Nancie Zobrist read prepared questions to the group, which took turns answering them. Candidates also took questions from the audience, which totaled around 30 people.
The affair was mostly civil, with those in attendance giving their blessings to Meier to leave early to attend the funeral of a friend and Barber to briefly step out of the room to participate in a conference all regarding his basketball team's play in the postseason.
However, Zobrist did have to remind candidates once that the event was "not a debate" and that they were there to say what they would do if they were elected and not to talk ill of their opponents.
The warning from Zobrist came early in the evening, when Moore was talking about why he was running.
"I'm going there for one season," Moore said. "A guy (Meier) told me he was going to lower my taxes, and he raised my taxes."
In his opening comments, Meier had said that television ads being run against him had misrepresented about his votes on Illinois' income tax hike, which passed last summer.
Meier, who drew criticism after an initial vote in favor of the tax increase, later voted against it, and Meier said he "stood with Gov. Rauner" on his eventual veto of the tax bill, which was overridden.
"I did not vote for the tax increase that became law," he said.
Meier did vote for the state budget in July that included the tax increase.
After some rumblings toward the end of the event, Zobrist also had to ask the audience to refrain from commenting aloud after candidate responses. But those were the only two minor instances where discourse even bumped up against the rules of decorum for the event.
"“I really enjoy planning and moderating the meet the candidate nights as it gives the business community a great insight into the candidates and where their passions lie," Zobrist said. "We were so fortunate to have so many candidates available for our event on Monday. I know several candidates had other commitments to balance with our event, and I appreciate the sacrifices they made in order to attend. I felt we had a great discussion about the issues affecting Illinois.”
Top 3 agenda items
Candidates were asked what there top three initiatives would be, if they were elected.
Gaither said the economy was tops on his list.
"I have a lot of plans to rejuvenate some old cash crops, like hemp," he said.
Healthcare was next. "It's just too darn expensive," he said.
Improvements in education was third for Gaither.
For Barber, No. 1 was repeal of of House Bill 40. Term limits was No. 2. He also said the state needed to do a "debt affordability study."
Stratemeyer said protecting private property rights was his top priority.
Without private property rights, Stratemeyer said "there really are no other rights."
He also wanted to focus on bringing economic opportunity to rural areas.
"Most of the state is rural, and what is going on in the rural part of the state is absolutely devastating," he said.
Stratemeyer also wanted to repeal the state income tax increase.
Him, who described himself as a "fiscal hawk," said elimination of the income tax increase topped his list.
He also wanted to "bring back quality jobs" and "invest in the trades industry."
Lowering taxes was also in the forefront for Plummer.
"You don't generate revenue by increasing taxes. You generate revenue by increasing the tax base," Plummer said.
That means bringing more people into the state. To do that, he said lower property taxes are needed, as well as worker's compensation reform.
Plummer said pensions for elected members of the General Assembly need to be eliminated, saying it was "ridiculous."
"It's a part-time job," he said.
Plummer also wanted to repeal House Bill 40.
Meier said he would like to implement reforms to keep "fake bills" from tying up legislative time. He said 20 such bills had been moved in the last session at the behest of House Speaker Mike Madigan. Meier said none of the bills were good faith measures, they were only presented for political purposes and had no chances of becoming law.
Meier, who has been a staunch advocate of the Warrren G. Murray Developmental Center, said taking care of the mentally and physically disabled was important to him.
He, too, wanted to repeal HB 40.
Though he would be in favor of it, Moore said he thought getting the state income tax hike repealed was not likely.
"I think it's ridiculous you think you are going to get that repealed," he said.
That's why Moore said cutting spending was his No. 1 goal.
"Our budget is out of control," he said.
Moore said he also wanted to see legislation on pension reform and term limits.
Healthcare bill backlog
The candidates were asked what they would do about the backlog of bills owed by the state to healthcare providers. All said those bills should get priority.
"The bills have been incurred, and they should be paid," Stratemeyer said.
Since the state passed its first budget in two years this past July, Meier said the backlog of unpaid bills had dropped from 20 months to 7 1/2, but more needed to be done.
Plummer said funding of the "core functions" of state government, which he identified as education, roads and healthcare, need to have better protections and not part of the general revenue fund.
"I think it needs to be in a lock box and can't get touched," he said.
Barber said the state debt service overall takes up too much of the budget and needs to be paid down as a priority.
He also wanted to see medical malpractice reform as a way of keeping doctors.
"It's out of control with the judges ruling against our doctors," he said.
Him said more local solutions to healthcare are needed. As a county board member, he said he is currently working with the county health department to give local residents access to the same doctors county employees use. He said residents would have to pay for their visits, but they would at least have access.
Though the question was focused on candidates for state office, Gaither used the opportunity to advocate for what he thought Congress could do when it came to healthcare. He said he would like to "attack the high prices of prescription drugs."
He also wanted to see reforms in how healthcare is paid for, from a service- to a results-based model.
"As long as every time you go to the doctor you have to pay something, the doctor has incentive to keep you coming back," he said.
In the wake of the country's latest mass school shooting in Florida, candidates were asked about what they would do to ensure school safety.
Moore said he thought teachers who volunteered and had the proper training should be armed.
Barber said he thought more emergency training and coordination between school staff and police was needed.
None of the GOP candidates thought more gun laws were the answer.
"I'm not going to infringe on the Second Amendment," Him said.
"It's a false narrative to say we have to give up rights to protect our children," Stratemeyer said.
Many candidates said the problem was a societal one.
"I think social media is a problem in society," said Plummer. "It creates bullying."
Him said, "We have a Godless society."
Stratemeyer said the nation had a "culture of death."
Though he would be in favor of certain age restrictions for purchasing firearms, Gaither said, "We are never going to get rid of mass shootings. Guns are just too important to people."
Gaither said improving mental health care and education were the best paths to curbing the problems of gun violence.
All the Republican candidates supported the idea of term limits in one form or another.
"You cannot be in office for as long as some people have and not be tainted," Barber said.
Barber said he would self-impose term limits, just as Sen. McCater, the man he's seeking to replace, had done.
"I'd like to carry on that legacy," he said. "I appreciate it."
If elected, Moore said would self-impose a limit on four years in office.
"I don't care about getting re-elected," he said.
Meier said he was in favor of some limits, which he said should be up to the voters and not legislators, but having too short of a limit was not a good idea, either. He said he has colleagues with more knowledge of state agencies than the directors who run them.
"When you boot people out after four or six years, you lose that knowledge... And you turn the process of running the state over to the lobbyists," he said.
Meier said limits on those in leadership would be good place for legislative action.
"Mike Madigan has been leader for 35 years... Every year, he gives himself a little more power," Meier said.
Plummer said he was in favor of term limits.
"We need citizen legislators, not career politicians," he said.
Plummer said they could be imposed in a number of ways, but it should be a voter decision.
Him said eliminating perks of office could be a good place to start, including health insurance and pensions for legislators.
"I want to fight smart," he said.
Gaither, the only Democrat, said, "The only jobs that terms limits create is more elected officials."
He said reforming how political districts are drawn to eliminate gerrymandering would better allow voters to impose their own term limits on legislators.
Economic Development at Agriculture
The economic health of Southern Illinois and farming as its No. 1 industry were tied to more than one question.
Answers ran across a number of topics, from tax increments financing districts (TIFs) to tax and tort reform to issues with the Environmental Protection Agency.
"TIFs don't create jobs. They only move jobs," Stratemeyer said.
Plummer said Illinois needed to reform its court system.
"Businesses don't want to come where they don't feel like they have a fair shake in court," he said.
Meier said court reform amounted to electing more Republican judges.
"I worked on this," he said, pointing to recent GOP victories on the Illinois 5th Appellate Court and the election of Lloyd Karmeier as chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.
"We can overturn lawsuits coming out of Madison County. We can overturn lawsuits coming out of St. Clair County," Meier said.
Gaither said the government needs to promote more broadband access in rural areas.
"Businesses aren't going to come here if they don't have access to Internet that is fast and reliable," he said.
When it came for farm operations, some candidates took the opportunity to bash the EPA.
"I think the EPA is a dangerous organization," Moore said, adding that "stifling" and "excessive regulations from EPA "strangle" small business owners.
Meier said that when a constituent has had issues with EPA, or any other state agency, he takes it as a personal matter.
"We are there in person, he said.
To help farmers, Barber said he would want to continue to promote ethanol in gasoline and tax-free purchases for agriculture equipment.
Moore said lower taxes were needed to make Illinois more competitive.
"These tax increases are insidious," he said.
In response to an audience question about a Madison County sales tax referendum to benefit local schools, Moore said he opposed to the proposal. He said didn't like the idea of paying "a toll" when they came through Madison County, referring to a talking point from advocates of the idea that man non-residents would end up paying the tax. He said school districts need to learn to live within their means.
"The smart thing I think to do is to start reducing spending," he said.
During the discussion about the sales tax vote, Plummer also said taxes were already too high. He said people were moving out of Illinois because of it, and those who remained were being "taxed to death" to make up for it.
When asked about potentially loosening Illinois' regulations on medical marijuana, the GOP field seemed in unison that they would be in favor of studying it, if it meant helping people in need. However, none advocated for legalizing recreational pot.
"There's a reason to have (medical marijuana). Some people need it... But I'm happy Illinois as stricter regulations," Moore said.
"I will always be 100 percent opposed to recreational marijuana in Illinois," Plummer said.
"I'm not for expanding it," Him said.
"I'm not convinced it needs to be liberalized," Stratemeyer said.
Gaither was the only candidate in favor of legalizing recreational pot. He called it a "no-brainer," saying states that have done so have not only seen an economic boon, but have also experienced fewer overdoes from drugs, like heroin.
Gaither's response on pot was the only answer a candidate gave all evening that drew any applause from the audience.