By CHRISTOPHER AMATI
The Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce welcomed three local politicians, State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-13), State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25) and State Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-26) to its State of the State Coffee Friday, March 3. The main focus was on business and how the state’s budget issue is affecting the business sector.
In his opening remarks, Chamber President Jonathan Swain emphasized that the organization is “… a place of conversation where all parties that participate in commerce can come together. We believe that every voice matters.”
Those in attendance were then allowed to ask the elected officials questions.
The first question was how state actions in the upcoming legislative session would affect businesses in Illinois.
“Illinois still has strong fundamentals higher education, hospitals, strong workforce but the biggest issue that is going to affect business is the budget or the lack thereof,” Mitchell said. “The impact of the budget impasse on education has been catastrophic.”
Mitchell said that Gov. Bruce Rauner has achieved an actual cut to education of 67 percent and that a failure to fund higher education has had a direct impact on the state’s economy.
“I think it is shocking and unconscionable that Illinois does not have a budget,” Flynn Currie said. “[Education] is one of the casualties of the failure of budgeting…in the meantime, we can’t pay our bills.”
Flynn Currie said the biggest impediment to business development and growth in the State of Illinois is the failure to have an adequate, responsible budget. She said that Illinois was the least equitable state in terms of school funding and that Illinois has never stepped up to the plate on the issue. She talked about the reliance on property taxes on school funding and said that concentrated poverty in relation to education had been not given enough attention.
“It’s past time to get it done,” Flynn Currie said.
Raoul said no other state in the history of the country had gone two years without passing a budget and that Illinois was approaching three years. He said that under the previous administration Illinois had paid down its bills to a thirty- day cycle and now grown exponentially with some vendors waiting over a year to get paid.
“It’s an embarrassment,” Raoul said. “Someone believes he was elected king, not governor. [It’s] high time to end the educational apartheid that we have in Illinois.”
Flynn Currie said even questions about how businesses that would like to do work for the State all come back to whether they would be paid or not.
“Every governor I have worked with in the State of Illinois, Republican and Democrat, understood that the first job of governor is governing and that means putting together a budget, paying your bills and making sure that the people who are providing services to your clients are being paid at the end of the month.” Flynn Currie said.
“It all comes down to having a budget,” Mitchell said.
Right to work laws were also brought up.
Flynn Currie said that Illinois was surrounded by states that went right to work but “I would say that was not the answer to our prayers.”
She said that Moody’s Analytics, when asked if changing the worker’s compensation laws would make any difference, said “maybe, maybe not” and once again emphasized that the answer is the budget.
Mitchell said that in the long run, right to work would mean less money in people’s pockets.
“It’s a dumb idea,” Mitchell said. “Right to work is about breaking the back of the unions, breaking the back of the Democratic Party. It’s political, it’s ideological, and it has very little grounding in real world facts. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.”
Raoul said right to work is a well orchestrated attack on the middle class.
“It’s about greed, the ultra rich trying to get richer and the erosion of the middle class,” Raoul said. “If people don’t have resources, they can’t be consumers.”
He touted the state’s educated and skilled workforce, saying that when convention centers in Florida were looking for workers, they came to Illinois for its well trained skilled workforce. He said without collective bargaining there are a lot of things you sacrifice [such as] safety and wages. He called the adoption of right to work as a “race to the bottom.”
When asked about regulation of businesses, Flynn Currie warned of large businesses pushing regulations that will stifle their competition, in banks, breweries and other businesses.
All three elected officials agreed that the state should legalize marijuana. They agreed that it would be a tax boon to Illinois.
“Legalize it, regulate it and tax the hell out of it,” Flynn Currie said.
Raoul said that his father’s suffering with cancer might have been alleviated with medical marijuana.
While they were in favor, both Mitchell and Raoul cautioned that it might also bring forth public safety and health issues.
“We need some level of control over what is being distributed out there,” Raoul said.
Mitchell said he saw a study that legalizing would bring $130 million the first year.
“It makes sense,” Mitchell said. “It’s an issue that’s time has come.”
There were questions from the audience about transparency in community policing, state control over local charter schools and accountability in local school boards. Raoul cautioned against tying Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hands on the issue of appointing the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
“We may have a mayor in the future that you may like,” Raoul said.