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State rep, newcomer square off for 18th Senate seat

Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham

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Bill Cunningham

Political party: Democrat

Birthdate: 7/21/1967

Occupation: State Representative, 35th Dist.

Marital status: Maried

Spouse: Julie

Education:

BA, Political Science, University of Illinois; Mount Carmel High School - Chicago

Civic, professional, fraternal or other affiliations:

Beverly Area Planning Association, Sutherland School Foundation, American Youth Soccer Organization, Special Olympics - Chicago, St. Barbabas Parish.

Have you held elective or appointive political office or been employed by any branch of government?

Illinois State Representative 2011 - Present

Sutherland Local School Council

Cook County Sheriff’s Office

Please list jobs or contracts you, members of your immediate family or business partners have had with government.

None

Campaign headquarters: 3215 W. 111th Street, Chicago IL 60655

Website: voteforbillcunningham.com

Name your five biggest campaign contributors and the amount they contributed.

http://www.elections.il.gov/CampaignDisclosure/ContributionsSearchByCandidates.aspx?ddlCanSearchOrderBy=Last%20or%20Only%20Name%20-%20A%20to%20Z&txtCanLastName=cunningham&txtCanFirstName=bill

For incumbents: In either the fall veto session or in January, will you support a bill like SB1673? That bill cuts pension costs for four of five state pension systems by making state workers and retirees choose between keeping state-subsidized health insurance or an automatic 3 percent annual pension hike during retirement. Do you support the element of the bill that shifts employer pension costs from the state to local school districts?

There are a number of options available for solving the pension crisis — none of them are easy to implement and almost every viable solution will require of some of level of sacrifice from public employees. That is not fair to public employees, all of whom have dutifully held up their end of the bargain — paying anywhere from 7 to 9 percent of every paycheck into the pension system. Any debate about the pension crisis should be prefaced with the acknowledgement that the pension systems are on the verge of collapse not because of the employees, but because of state government’s willingness to skip payments. However, debating how the pension systems got this way will not solve the problem. Instead, we must focus on reaching a solution that will ensure public employees receive the economically secure retirement they were promised without bankrupting the state in the process.

I believe the best way to accomplish this without unfairly burdening public employees is to modify the Cost of Living Allowances provided to retirees. The current formula that most pension system employ — 3 percent COLA, compounded annually — has been the driving force behind rising pension liabilities. If a retiree collects pension benefits for 23 years (and a growing number of retirees do) the dollar amount of their pension will double in that time frame.

It is important to note, that the 3 percent compounded COLA was not put in place until the late 1980’s. Since that time, not coincidently, the pension funds have seen their funding ratios steadily decline. Returning to a more sensible, pre-80’s COLA formula, one tied to the actual rate of inflation and one that is not compounded, will erase a huge portion of the pension systems’ long-term liability. And it will have a more dramatic effect than raising the retirement age or requiring increased contributions by current employees. Analysis provided during the Spring legislative session indicated that such an approach would bring the pensions to near 100 percent funding levels by the year 2045, as long as the state stops skipping its payment obligations.

Any reduction in pension benefits for employees, such as the proposed modification of the COLA, must be met with a legally enforced commitment from the General Assembly and governor to meet the state’s annual pension payments, which will become more affordable with the reduction in COLA-driven liabilities.

As far as local districts assuming pension payments is concerned, I do not support transferring all pension cost from the state to the local districts. However, because the Teacher’s Retirement System is the largest and most underfunded pension system in the state, some compromise must be reached on this matter or true pension reform will never be realized. And action needs to be taken to prevent local districts from granting end-of-career pension boosts to administrators and teachers and passing the costs to the state. For those reasons, I would support a policy that would have the state and local districts share pension costs. One solution would be to require the state to make the employer pension contribution for a portion of the salary of a TRS member (say the first $40,000 dollars,) with the local district picking up the employer contribution on every penny of salary after that. This would not only discourage local districts from granting end-of-career pension boosts, it would reduce the burden placed on taxpayers who live in middle income and poor school districts, who currently must help pay for the pension benefits in high-salary, affluent school districts through their state income taxes.

If you don’t support a bill like SB1673, what is your plan for rescuing the state’s pension systems?

See above answer

For challengers or candidates for an open seat: If there is no action on pension reform in the fall veto session or in early January, would you support a bill like SB1673 in the next legislative session? That bill cuts pension costs for four of five state pension systems by making state workers and retirees choose between keeping state-subsidized health insurance or an automatic 3 percent annual pension hike during retirement. Do you support the element of the bill that shifts employer pension costs from the state to local school districts?

Did not respond

If you don’t support a bill like SB1673, what is your plan for rescuing the state’s pension systems?

see above pension response

For all candidates: Do you support the Medicaid reform package passed last spring, including $1.6 billion in cuts and rate reductions and an increase in the cigarette tax? What else, if anything, needs to done to ensure the health of the state’s Medicaid system?

I voted in favor of the Medicaid reform package last spring. The cuts helped eliminate wasteful spending and ended or modified a number of programs for which the state received no Medicaid reimbursement payments from the federal government, which placed too great of a burden on Illinois tax payers. Unfortunately, the cuts did eliminate and reduce some valuable programs, like prescription drug benefits for seniors, but the reform package had to be enacted or Illinois’ entire Medicaid safety net could have collapsed under the weight of unpaid bills.

Do you support letting the 2 percent point income tax increase expire in 2014 as planned, or would you like to see the tax increase extended beyond 2014?

The 2011 income tax hike should be phased down as scheduled.

Do you support any changes to the corporate income tax rate? Do you support any other changes to the state’s business tax structure? What should the state government do to create a more favorable business climate and to promote job growth?

Raising the corporate tax to an affective rate of 9.5% not only hurt many businesses and cost the state existing jobs, it helped destroy Illinois’ reputation and made us less competitive with neighboring states when it comes to creating new jobs. What’s more, Illinois’ complicated, loophole-heavy formula for collecting corporate taxes results in many corporations paying no taxes at all. The best solution is to lower the corporate rate to below 2011 levels and make sure it is applied more evenly. I voted in the House to support the CME and Sears tax breaks, (though I had some reservations about the incentives being offered to Sears,) because to do otherwise would have cause more job and tax revenue losses to the state. But the best solution is not to offer piece-meal tax breaks to large corporate interests, it is to have a lower tax rate that is more evenly applied.

I have endorsed three primary methods for promoting job growth: 1) Make the Research and Development Tax Credits permanent — The CME/Sears legislative package also temporarily extended R-and-D credits, which was one of the most effective parts of the legislation. Making these credits permanent would not only give current Illinois business some cost certainty, it may encourage innovative companies to relocated here. Tech start-ups and “green” businesses would be primary benefactors. 2) Crackdown on Worker’s Compensation Fraud — The state’s business community frequently mentions high Worker’s Comp costs as a primary impediment to expanding businesses and hiring more employees. Last year, I supported changes to the Worker’s Comp Law that will save Illinois businesses millions, but more can be done. During my time as Chief of Staff in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, I helped form a special investigative unit that targeted department employees who filed frequent or suspect “injured on duty” claims. The state could conduct similar investigations of private and public sector claims both during the arbitration process and after awards have been made. A few high-profile prosecutions related to false claims would deter future abuse, save businesses money, and help change Illinois’ reputation for being hostile to job creation. 3) Invest in Transportation Infrastructure in the South Suburbs — Chicago leads the nation as a transportation hub in nearly all categories except for air cargo, where it has been bypassed by cities like Memphis, Louisville and Indianapolis, due mostly to congestion at O’Hare and the lack of space at Midway. As on-line retailers like Amazon and Ebay move to same-day and next day delivery services, air cargo’s importance in the transportation sector will increase. As such, the state can help create new jobs by positioning the proposed third airport in Peotone as an air cargo hub. Goods coming into Peotone can be easily shipped around the Midwest and the entire country given the abundance of intermodal rail yards and trucking routes in the south suburbs, (which is far away from the gridlock downtown and around O’Hare.) The state should offer incentives to shipping companies to lure them to Peotone. And the proposed Illiana Expressway should become part of the Tollway Authority’s expansion plans to improve trucking access to the region.

Given the decline of the manufacturing industry, there are few opportunities for economic growth in our region outside of the transportation sector. State government must recognize this reality and fully commit to developing our transportation infrastructure.

Do you support the gambling package Gov. Quinn vetoed at the end of August? If not, how could it be improved?

I voted in favor of the gambling package that Gov. Quinn vetoed, but I think that there is merit to a number of the Governor’s criticisms of the proposal. I support his call for a ban on political contributions by casino operators and agree that more regulatory oversight of the gaming industry is necessary.

Over the last few years, the state Legislature has begun to bring spending in line with revenues by cutting spending in education, health care, social services and other areas. Has the state Legislature done enough to reduce spending and run government more efficiently? What more could be done? Are there any areas where you would like to see greater state investment?

The most important cost savings the legislature can adopt is pension reform. This Fiscal Year, the state will spend $5.2 billion from the General Revenue Fund to meet its employer pension contribution. When you total up all pension costs, including paying off the debt on past pension-related borrowing, the state will spend $7 billion on pension costs -- which is roughly equal to the amount of new revenue raised by the 2011 tax increase. These spiraling pension costs have forced cuts to education, social services and public safety spending. Pension reform will not only provide future financial stability for the pension funds, it will help prevent new cuts to present-day budgets.

Would you seek any changes to the state ethics and campaign finance laws? Would you support capping what state party leaders can donate during a general election?

As stated above, I support banning campaign contributions by casinos and I also support capping what legislative leaders can spend on behalf of their candidates in general elections.

It is important to point out however, that the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, as well as a subsequent Illinois court ruling pinned to that decision, have effectively created huge loopholes in the state’s campaign finance reform efforts. The court’s approval of unlimited independent expenditures creates an environment where money can influence politics as it never has before. New changes to Illinois law may be necessary as a result.

Would you back a constitutional amendment to shift from a flat income tax to a progressive income tax system?

I favor efforts to make taxation more progressive in Illinois. I support a constitutional amendment to switch from a flat tax to a graduate income tax, which would lower the burden currently placed on middle class and poor families. This would make Illinois tax policy more like neighboring states who have successfully lured businesses across the border, and it could help lessen our reliance on property taxes.

Do you have a plan to reform Illinois’ school finance system so that it no longer produces inequities in school funding across the state?

A progressive income tax will generate more revenue which could be applied to school funding, which in turn, could allow local school boards to lessen their reliance on property taxes.

What is your view on gay marriage?

I campaigned in favor of civil unions when I ran for the House two years ago because I don’t believe any legal protections should be denied any Illinois resident, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Enacting civil unions for same sex couples achieved that goal in Illinois. For that reason, I don’t think “gay marriage” is legally necessary. I would hate to see a devisive cultural war break out over this issue when the state has much more urgent matters to address.

Updated: December 3, 2012 6:12AM



Two people who have never served in the state Senate have their eyes set on the redrawn 18th District seat that’s being vacated by the retiring Sen. Ed Maloney.

Democrat Bill Cunningham, a state representative whose 35th District covers much of the same turf as the 18th Senate boundaries, has worked closely with Maloney the past two years and credits him with teaching him the legislative ropes.

His Republican opponent, Dr. Barbara Bellar, is trying to win her first election. She has called Cunningham “a puppet for (Cook County Sheriff Tom) Dart and everyone else” and has said that she’s “running for genuine patriotic interests to serve my country.”

The district stretches southwest from Chicago’s Beverly community, picking up parts of Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn, Merrionette Park, Chicago Ridge, Worth, Palos Hills, Palos Heights and Palos Park. It also includes swaths of Orland Park and Orland Hills.

There may be a sense of deja vu for district voters. Bellar ran against Cunningham two years ago, losing the 35th House District seat to him.

Whoever wins this time, Cunningham says, will have to grapple with “the breakdown in trust” that has occurred in Illinois following much-publicized political corruption cases and the state’s inability to solve lingering problems. Illinois citizens, he said, spoke loud and clear about their dissatisfaction with Illinois’ failure to properly fund employee pensions and the fact that property taxes keep rising despite sinking home values.

“Everywhere I went, Evergreen Park, Mount Greenwood, Orland Park, everywhere, I heard that the most: ‘How can taxes go up if values are down?’ What people don’t understand is we have an incredibly confusing and, to me, fundamentally dishonest property tax system in the state. Even though property values have gone down, all the various taxing bodies have raised their tax levies. So, even though values go down, your taxes go up,” he said.

The candidates are mixed regarding Senate Bill 1673, a plan that would shift employer pension costs from the state to local school districts.

“The bill is inadequate and causes divisiveness. This is not a choice. What is needed is real change,” Bellar said. “I expect a Republican majority will tackle the problem.”

Meanwhile, Cunningham does not support shifting all of the pension costs from the state to local school districts. But he thinks they should share the costs.

“Because the Teachers’ Retirement System is the largest and most underfunded pension system in the state, some compromise must be reached on this matter or true pension reform will never be realized,” he said. “And action needs to be taken to prevent local districts from granting end-of-career pension boosts to administrators and teachers and passing the costs to the state.”

Bellar says government employees “need to join the real world of private, hard-working citizens who make contributions to a 401(k) plan.”

Cunningham said there are “a number of options” and “none of them are easy to implement and almost every viable solution will require some of level of sacrifice from public employees. That is not fair to public employees, all of whom have dutifully held up their end of the bargain — paying anywhere from 7 percent to 9 percent of every paycheck into the pension system.”

He prefers modifying the Cost of Living allowance provided to retirees.

They differ on gambling. Bellar opposes it, saying, “No one should make profit off another person’s ill-thought activity.”

Cunningham voted in favor of the expanded gambling package that Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed. He does, however, support Quinn’s call for a ban on political contributions from casino operators and agrees there should be more regulatory oversight of the industry. For his part, Cunningham refused to distribute any General Assembly scholarships, a program the Legislature scrapped after numerous abuses of the system were uncovered.

Regarding gay marriage, Bellar is opposed, Cunningham prefers civil unions.



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