Question & Answer: The Four Tops
Illinois Issues’ Statehouse Bureau Chief Pat Guinane sat down with the four legislative leaders to discuss some topics, new and old that will confront the 94th General Assembly.
We covered the basics — budget woes, medical malpractice, gambling expansion — and let each address his own agenda for the spring session, which begins January 12. We tailored some questions to each individual.
The interviews took place in Springfield in mid-November. We edited the transcripts for clarity.
House Democratic Leadership
Speaker of the House
Madigan, the longest-serving member of the House, has represented Chicago’s Southwest Side since 1971. He also was a delegate to the state’s 1970 Constitutional Convention. Madigan begins his 11th term as speaker this month.
Q. What are the issues you would like to see addressed this spring?
Number one: budget. Number two: further review of electric utility deregulation, review of telephone regulation and medical malpractice.
Q. Why electric and telephone regulation?
They’re both scheduled for review.
Q. Do you think the legislature will spend a lot time addressing those issues?
I think the legislature will spend a lot of time on all four of those issues. In the case of the budget, going into the preparation of the next budget, we are looking at $900 million of one-time revenue in the current budget. So, for those budget-makers who would like to stay even — in terms of the provision of service by the state of Illinois — in order to stay even, you have to find $900 million, just to stay even, before you get to a consideration of increases or growth in the budget.
I think we ought to spend a lot of time on electric utility deregulation because, although Illinois appears to have successfully transitioned to deregulation, there’s a lot of serious issues to be addressed in terms of electric utility deregulation.
Number one would be the rate freeze that was put in place. At the time, it was argued that this would be beneficial for ratepayers, especially residential ratepayers. Over time, a legitimate question has been put, “Well, although we put a lid on what the rates might be, we may have also put a floor on what the rates could be.” And competition over the last couple years, without the rate freeze, may have driven those rates lower than they are right now.
In addition, we provided for what they call stranded costs at the time of the electric utility deregulation, which is an industry way of saying that the mistakes of the utility companies, notably Commonwealth Edison, in building nuclear plants would be paid for by the ratepayers. We did that.
Having done that, having done the rate freeze, you’re now looking at a cliff, in terms of where you go with cost for the utility companies and for the rates.
In the case of the telephone companies, there has been a great change in telephone service. You probably carry a cell phone. And so all of that should be reviewed now, rather than later, because of the dramatic changes in the industry and technology.
Q. The argument is that a move to a more free-market system would benefit everyone?
And in the case of the phone regulation — privately, I put the question, and I guess I’ll put it publicly right now: Why couldn’t we follow the model that we followed in electric utility deregulation, where, in essence, we made Commonwealth Edison and the other distribution companies common carriers and took them out of the generation business. Why couldn’t we just make SBC a common carrier for distribution and take them out of the other aspects of it. I’m sure they have some kind of response, but I think it’s a question that ought to be put.
If you were to do that, then there’s a little more rhyme and reason to this idea that they’re deregulated, but the legislature or the Commerce Commission is setting the rate for wholesale sales from people like SBC to the others.
Q. The comptroller says there’s $1.9 billion in one-time money in this year’s budget.
We disagree with him on that because we would say that we simply moved that $400 million to one place in the budget from another because of the borrowing we did at the end of the fiscal year. We did that borrowing. We brought that money in. We paid down our obligations and, therefore, that money was just put into a different section of the budget, so that’s a difference we have with the comptroller.
The $900 million is pretty well agreed. In addition to the $900 million, we have to be concerned with our obligations to the state pension systems. I forget the exact number, but that would easily take the $900 million over a billion dollars.
Q. The pension systems say they’ll need $2.5 billion this year — a $600 million increase over last year. To what degree is pension funding a serious issue in Illinois?
It’s a grave issue because of the long-term obligations we’re under and because of the short-term squeeze that puts on our ability to be responsive to the people of the state of Illinois in terms of the services we provide.
Q. Along the same lines, we’re already talking about a $1 billion hole in next year’s budget. How much progress have we made from two years ago, when the number was $5 billion?
We’ve made progress. The biggest problem we have is the governor, his desire to continue to spend more money when we’re running a budget deficit. And I’ve said to people that, in retrospect, had the governor in his first year in office taken advantage of the honeymoon afforded him because he was the first Democratic governor in over 25 years, with both chambers of legislature under Democratic control, had he taken advantage of that honeymoon to simply say, “Let’s do a status quo budget in my first year, and we can rectify receipts against expenditures,” why we’d be in pretty good shape today.
But you’ll recall, coming into office, he claimed there was a deficit of between $3 [billion] and $5 billion and, with that in mind, he proposed spending an additional $1 billion, which the legislature did, in his first year.
So it was only in his second year, when I decided to take a stand for fiscal responsibility and to fight, that there would be no more structurally imbalanced budgets, that we would end balloon financing and that we would only spend the money we had. And we would not spend money we didn’t have. In that second year we made some progress. Those of us who want to believe in fiscal responsibility, we made some progress. But we have a long way to go.
Q. During those negotiations last year, you aligned yourself with the Republicans leaders in both chambers. Was that a marriage of convenience or something we should expect to see in the future?
I’ve told Rep. [Tom] Cross and Sen. [Frank] Watson that I plan to maintain the coalition. And let me add that coalition-building on my part is nothing new. When I came back in as speaker in 1997, I provided that there would be Republicans serving as chairs of committees in the House. I’ve continued that practice ever since. In this session, I provided that a former leader, Lee Daniels, would be the chair of a committee on mental health and developmentally disabled people.
And so, in my mind, the people of the state are not interested in useless, wasteful partisanship. They’re interested in a good, solid work product coming out of a legislature, which is populated by people from both political parties. And so I believe, and I think the people of the state agree with me, that everybody elected to the General Assembly ought to be involved in the decision-making, and, as far as I can facilitate that, I’m going to do that.
Q. As you mentioned, the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance is a significant issue. The Republicans contend the state needs to cap plaintiff awards for pain and suffering, which Democrats generally do not support. Short of that impasse, are there solutions that can be worked on this session?
Let me say quite a few things about this. Number one, there’s been a recent declaration coming out of Texas, from I believe General Electric, which is in the insurance business, that caps don’t work, that they don’t get the job done. OK.
In addition, there’s real strong evidence that shows that where you have caps, as they do in, say, California, what it’s done is to provide that poor people with significant injuries as a result of medical malpractice, but not real bad injuries, can’t get a lawyer to take the case because if a lawyer takes a case in California, with the $250,000 cap, he processes the case, he gets a judgment for, say, $1 million. The law reduces the million to $250,000 and it reduces the fee also. So, for the lawyer, he doesn’t see an economic incentive to get involved with the case.
Now, if you’re a wealthy person and you wish to pursue the action for whatever reason, you can afford to do it. If it’s just an egregious matter where there may be some punitive damages, there may be another reason to pursue. But the important thing to understand is that for poor people, victims of medical malpractice, in California, they have effectively been disenfranchised. They effectively have no remedy under the law. And I just don’t believe in that type of a governmental system.
I believe in a legal system where there’s always a reasonable remedy. That’s not to say that you’re entitled to the ultimate remedy, but there should be some remedy available.
Next, I want to talk about the conflict of interest that the Illinois State Medical Society functions at. The medical society is the lobbyist for the doctors who subscribe to their program. Not every doctor in the state is a member of the medical society, but, for those who join, the medical society is their lobbyist, and the medical society has created and operates an insurance company. Last spring, as we discussed and debated the issue of medical malpractice insurance cost, it was very apparent that, when pressed, the medical society lobbyist would represent the insurance company, not the medical society, which means not the doctors.
We are now coming to the point where some doctors are realizing that. And some doctors [who] have been told what proposals were on the table, which were rejected by the medical society lobbyist, are starting to ask, “Why didn’t you take that proposal. Because that would have helped the situation.”
In conclusion, there are a lot of things that can be done to improve medical malpractice liability cost. You can strengthen the safeguards that are in place already, in terms of requirements to file the lawsuits. You can deal with instructions to the jury, coming from the judge. You can deal with personal asset protection for doctors.
But, if you participate in the meetings, you follow all of the proposals back and forth, the ultimate goal of the medical society and its insurance company is to disenfranchise people who want to file lawsuits. That’s what it’s all about. That takes you back to the fundamental question: What kind of a legal system do you want in your state? Is it a legal system for small individual people, victims, or is it a legal system for insurance companies and for those who are required to pay out from the insurance companies?
Q. Is that the message the Democratic Party will use? Because some would say the Republican victory in the 5th District Illinois Supreme Court race is a victory for caps?
I’m sure the Republicans will argue that the [Lloyd] Karmeier victory in the Supreme Court election is a referendum in support of caps on awards and they’ve taken the easy route. They haven’t taken the high road, but they’ve taken the easy road. My position is what I just said to you. Where there are abuses in the legal system, they ought to be eliminated and I’m ready to do it. At the same time, I’m not going disenfranchise people who need some relief and remedy under the law.
Q. Do you think that Illinois municipalities or the state should look for an expansion of gambling to aid their budget situations?
I would not recommend to any government that they depend upon gaming to balance their budget. If they’re interested in gaming, I would say to them, “Look upon it as an extra.” In my opinion, better that we didn’t have gaming, but it’s here. It’s in adjoining states and so we have to learn to live with it.
If we had it to do all over again, I would have preferred a system where there would have been governmental ownership of all of the casinos, as happens in Canada, because then the profit goes to the government.
Q. That said, how do you feel about city ownership of a casino? Do you think ownership should fall to an individual city or more to state ownership?
In my view, it could be either one. The state could own it or a city, such as the city of Chicago, could own the casino. Having said that, my view on that would be that the ownership would be in the hands of the government, but the operation and the management would be done by a private company and, if possible under the law, require that it be a company that has a high standard of performance, and that probably means one of the companies coming out of Las Vegas.
Q. Rockford, Waukegan, Chicago and the south suburbs have been mentioned as possible sites, if the General Assembly and the governor were to allow new casino licenses to be created. Do you see any problem in particular with any of those sites?
I wouldn’t see any problem with the sites.
Q. What is the impact of having both chambers of the legislature and the Executive Mansion controlled by Chicago Democrats? It was portrayed as a negative in fall legislative campaigns. Is there a noticeable impact you can point your finger to?
The best impact I can point my finger to is the position I took in support of fiscal responsibility and ending balloon financing and only spending money that we have, which I don’t think would be expected for a Democrat from Chicago. But I did it. I think the state is better off for it. I think the Democratic Party is better off.
Q. You’ve been a member of the legislature since 1971. Is that attitude something you’ve picked up along the way? Is there anything you can point to, an experience that changed your perspective during that time?
I wouldn’t call it a change. You know I started my career as part of the organization of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was a fiscal conservative. And I clearly remember the failure of New York City in the middle ’70s because of failure to end balloon financing and failure to end policies where they would spend money that they didn’t have. I was a member of the Illinois legislature when the Chicago Board of Education failed, for the same reasons. So, just drawing upon my experience and my observation, you have to watch government very carefully because, if you don’t, it’ll spend itself into failure.
Q. We continue to see a push for education funding reform. You were a delegate to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention that decided the state has the “primary responsibility” for financing the system of public education. What does that mean to you, and are we failing to do that as a state?
To me, the language speaks for itself. I supported the amendment of, I think 1990 or 1992 that would have clarified that language. It would have given the [state] Constitution stronger language where you could argue that it should be 50 percent of the aggregate to the local districts. So my view is the language of the constitution. I would have preferred that that amendment would have been adopted. And I did support the [former Gov. Jim] Edgar bill, which would have raised the income tax and reduced property taxes in terms of supporting education.
Illinois does not meet its constitutional responsibility or expectation. Use whatever word you want to use, but we fall short of the mark. We should do better. An impediment to that today is the position of Gov. [Rod] Blagojevich, where he has stated repeatedly that he’s not in favor of raising the income tax or the sales tax.
You may remember I made a statement down at Southern Illinois University, which was very measured, in response to a question. And he took a very measured statement, where I was simply saying that if the governor wanted to raise the income tax, I would be supportive, and made it into a position where I was the one who was the advocate of the increase. And then he used that for political purposes for about three months. So, he’s pretty well maneuvered himself in a corner, where, in all likelihood, it won’t be possible for Illinois to meet its obligation under the Constitution.
Q. The end-of-session budget meetings between the governor and the four legislative leaders started under Gov. Jim Thompson. Last year was the first year when we had these memorandums of understanding, written budget agreements. Do you foresee those as something that will be commonplace in future budget negotiations?
Going forward in the near future, yes. And that happened because of a broad, widespread distrust of the Blagojevich Administration, which they acknowledge, at least in private. And so, in the near term, you will see more and more of memorandums of understanding.
Q. Does that include outside the scope of the budget negotiations?
I think it will happen wherever members of the legislature are interacting with the governor’s office.
Q. There’s been talk with regard to a gaming bill that this is the type of issue in which the governor needs to step forward. As speaker of the House, what role do you think the governor should have in either advancing or halting legislation?
Well, my conceptual view of the relationship between the governor and the legislature is that the governor should be active in advocating positions on legislation. So, in gaming, he ought to stand up and tell us exactly what he wants to do. He either wants something or he doesn’t. Make a decision. Tell us what it is. And let us move forward with that or something else.
He’s chosen to equivocate on the gaming issue. That’s his choice. So, it’s simply a disagreement between him and me as to how he ought be conducting himself as governor. But he was elected as governor. He can do as he wishes.
Q. How would you assess the current balance between the executive and legislative branches of Illinois state government? Does one outweigh the other, and has that changed?
I would think that today it’s well balanced, which means that they’re almost equal, which was the intent of the drafters of the Constitution. I’ve played a role in that, just in terms of how I conducted the last session and my longtime advocacy on keeping a watch on the governor’s use of the amendatory veto.
I’m a member of the legislature and if I’m required to choose between the executive and the legislative [branches], I’m going to choose the legislature. I think that’s what I should do. I think that’s what the members of the House, who select me as the speaker, want me to do, so that’s what I’m gong to do.
But, getting back to your original question, today I think it’s in good balance. In earlier years, it was out of balance, in favor of the executive. And it would be in balance in favor of the executive, except that I’ve chosen to stand in support of the legislative [branch] and to work toward that balance.
Q. Barack Obama became a star of the party overnight. Who do you see as potential future stars in the state Democratic Party?
That is a question [that] if I were to answer it I would make one or two people happy and many people not happy. So I’ll punt.
House Republican Leadership
Cross is expected to begin a second term as minority leader this month. He has represented Oswego and the surrounding far-southwest suburbs since 1993.
Q. What issues would you like to see addressed during the spring session?
I think we need to work on a school construction bond program. It’s something we needed to do last fall. I’ve been working on, just myself, some obesity and nutrition issues, from vending machines and exercise in schools, P.E. classes, soft drink machines.
I think we need to continue to look at how we’re going to fund education. And we need to look at a capital bill, separate from the school construction, a capital bill including roads. And I might have some ideas — I’m not going to elaborate now — but some more stuff involving the death penalty.
I just think there’s a brand new General Assembly that wants to keep an eye on it. And to keep, just for me, a focus on keeping the budget in line and keeping spending down.
Q. You mentioned education funding. As a suburban lawmaker, do you have any specific concerns regarding school funding reform?
You’ve got to make sure you have ongoing property tax relief. Two, you need to make sure whatever funding stream we find, the formula’s not altered to the detriment of the suburbs. It all boils down to an equity issue and balance between the suburbs and the rest of the state. It’s important to keep that balance.
Q. What about medical malpractice? As you see it, is capping plaintiff awards for pain and suffering the only solution?
I don’t know that it’s the only solution. It’s certainly worked in other areas. Unfortunately, all we’ve done is talk about it and we’ve done nothing. I think this last election, if nothing else, proved that it’s something that needs to be addressed. Some of the Democrats lost their races because of medical malpractice reform, or the lack of. So clearly it’s something we need to address. It’s going to continue to be an access to health care or lack of access to health care issue, and it’s going to be a problem that just grows every day.
Q. You mentioned the election. You picked up one seat in the House.
Well, we knocked off two. Yeah, we knocked off [William] Grunloh and [Ricca] Slone, but we had a little problem over in Cicero. We’re not sure what happened there still. But [for the Democrats] to lose those two downstate seats and for us to win those was big.
Q. You gained a net advantage of one vote. Practically speaking, what does that mean for you?
From a Republican Party standpoint, to win a couple seats is a positive. And we’re helping toward our rebuilding because I think our party can rebuild off of these caucuses. But from a practical standpoint, it’s not that significant in how we operate day-to-day in the General Assembly.
Q. Some of those contests, Elizabeth Coulson’s race comes to mind, saw some nasty ads. Does that make it harder to recruit candidates?
I think poor Beth was just in an awful race. It was so nasty. But I think people who have an interest in public service and are willing to work hard and are in the right district will find a way to win. I found that even Beth, who got beat up so bad, because she worked hard it just kind of rolled off her back.
Aaron Schock got beat up and so did David Reis, but because they worked hard — they were committed to wanting to serve the public — they prevailed.
So, yeah, I think in general it’s tougher to find people to run. But there are also people who are concerned about the direction of the state and that we’re losing jobs and we’re not taking care of access to health care issues and we’re not, maybe, taking care of education issues that they’re willing to run because they’re just committed to making a difference.
Q. What do you see as your role in rebuilding the Republican Party?
I think you can use our caucus as a starting point, along with the Senate caucus. We’ve had some successes. We have tried to reach out to young people in the state, get young people to run for legislative seats. We’ve tried to reach out to young people in terms of utilizing the Internet. What we’ve tried to focus on in our caucus is that there are issues that bring us together as opposed to divide us.
And we realize we have a diverse caucus. We have upstate and downstate. We have conservative and moderate. We have men and women. We have young and old.
Are there issues out there that we all fight about? Yeah. But we also know at the end of the day that it’s about jobs, it’s about malpractice reform, it’s about education, it’s about transportation. And if we can find those issues that unite and not divide, we can have success as a party. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
Q. You mentioned the Internet. Can you talk about your Web site, your blog? Where does that come from and what’s the goal, to build support with younger voters?
Yeah, of course it is. There’s a younger generation out there that gets their news and information about everything, not just politics, off the Internet, not watching Dan Rather or whomever. And so we think that’s the way to attract people, and we’ve had a lot of successes. People are reading our Web site and participating in the blog and that’s kind of neat.
It’s just a different way to communicate. Some people read Cosmopolitan. Some people read Glamour. Some people look at the Internet.
Q. Are Republicans losing their grip on the suburbs? Some say more suburbanites are voting Democratic. And [U.S. Rep.] Phil Crane, a GOP stalwart, was defeated by a Democrat. Is that a concern?
Is that a concern? Sure. Does it mean we’ve lost the suburbs? No. It means where we used to be able to take things somewhat for granted — and I don’t even know that we took it for granted, I think that it was just a little easier to count on a Republican vote — I think we have our work cut out for us.
I think we have diversity in the suburbs that we didn’t have 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. You’ve got more single moms in the suburbs. You’ve got more ethnic groups in the suburbs. You’ve got Chicago folks in the suburbs. You’ve got women working in the suburbs, where 10 or 20, 30 years ago they didn’t. It’s just a different universe and we have to adapt, strategywise on attracting those people.
The suburbs are an attractive place to live. It’s where jobs are, schools are good and transportation is generally good. We just have to realize that as we work on our message.
I don’t think Phil Crane was about whether or not the suburbs are Republican or not. I think you’re talking about a guy who was [in office], what, 35 years. I like Phil Crane — it’s a lesson for all of us. You’ve got to know when to hang up your spikes. And I say that for members of the General Assembly, as well, not just the U.S. Congress. He, unfortunately, had someone hang up his spikes for him, as opposed to hanging them up himself. And I stress, that’s not a criticism of him. It’s just [that] we all have a point when we need to know to hang it up.
Q. You’re often described as a friend of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Was that more so when he was in the House? How would you describe your relationship now?
Look, we’re not social friends. We got along. We were friends in the House. He went off and did his thing in Congress and became governor and I stayed here and became the House Republican leader. We work together when we can and I think that’s good. If the governor, tomorrow, was Lou Lang, I’d want to try to work with Lou Lang — when I could. There are times we can. There are times we just simply [can’t].
I mean, last year’s budget, we had some philosophical differences, and we’re going to continue to have philosophical differences when you’re from different parties and have different roles. I think we both recognize that we have to represent the people that we do, whether it’s all the people of the state of Illinois or a caucus. We have to do our jobs. I certainly have a healthy respect for his position, and I trust he has one for mine.
Q. You mentioned the budget. What do you make of the coalition you formed last year with Speaker Madigan and Senate Republican Leader Watson? Does it have staying power, and is it relegated to the budget?
It is hard to tell. I want to be committed to doing what’s best for our caucus and our members and the people of the state of Illinois. Again, I want to focus on streamlining government. We cut the budget last year across the board at 4 percent for most agencies. I think that was good. I want to focus on education and the other things I’ve talked about. So, coalition or not, those are going to be my goals and what’s best, again, for our caucus.
I do think, at the end of the day, the budget last year was a good product, for whatever reasons. So, I’d like to get to that point again this year.
Q. In the Senate, during the last two years, we’ve seen public partisan battles. We don’t see that in the House. Do you attribute that to a different environment in the House or what that might say about your ability to work with the other party?
We all have different styles and I can be very partisan and very vocal. It’s not my style. I can be if I have to be. But I think we have a responsibility to do the business of the people and there are times that the speaker and I are going to disagree and I respect that and I think he respects when I have to. I think, for me, what kind of drives me, is you always have to remember that you have to attack an issue and not a person. I don’t think the speaker or I make it personal. It’s all about issues.
Q. What are your thoughts on city ownership of a casino license?
Well, I think that, as a Republican, you certainly worry about any type of city ownership and the building of more patronage workers. I have some concerns about that. I guess anytime you can just build up a bigger workforce, I don’t like that. So I guess I have some concerns about that.
But there are so many concerns about the casinos at this point. Do we really need to be expanding gaming in this state to the extent that people are talking about? Do we really need one in the south suburbs? Do we really need one in the north suburbs? Do we really need one downstate? So all those questions are just as important. How are we going to utilize the money? Are we going to put it toward education? Are we going put it to tax reduction, a capital bill? There are so many unanswered questions that we really haven’t even gotten to the ownership issues yet.
Q. What about the budget? How much progress have we made toward erasing the $5 billion deficit of two years ago?
We’re getting closer and it’s hard to tell at this point. We’re going to have to wait and see what our revenues are as they come in in early spring. I think last year, at the end of the day, we ended up with a pretty decent product by cutting and not spending as much as had been initially suggested. So, we’re moving in the right direction, but we clearly have to be careful what we spend around here.
Q. During the fall legislative campaigns the fact that Chicago Democrats control both chambers and the Executive Mansion was portrayed as though it shortchanges the rest of the state. Do you see it that way?
It doesn’t have to. But, for instance, roads — you don’t want all the money to be spent on Chicago roads at the expense of suburbia or downstate. You don’t want the city to take care of the CTA at the expense of Metra or Pace. You don’t want Chicago State to get money at the expense of the other universities. So, when you start going down those roads, then you have some problems.
Q. Do you have a firm position on mass transit funding for the Chicago area? Some would like to revisit the funding formula to give the CTA a bigger cut.
I think you start messing with the formula and I think you’re going to have some problems. One of the things that concern me is traffic in Chicago, getting into the city. So many people have to do it for jobs. Whether you’re on the Stevenson or the Kennedy or the Eisenhower, traffic times have almost doubled — and to do anything to hurt Metra … . And I understand, there’s Cook and there’s the city and the collar counties, but I just don’t think you want to start to get into the business of trying to hurt Metra, because if you hurt Metra you potentially add more travel time for people and that’s not what we need as a society. We need to get people to and from work as efficiently and quickly as we can, and our expressways are at capacity and then some. We ought to be doing everything we can to make Metra, the CTA and Pace better.
Q. Does that mean more money from the state?
Look, maybe the CTA needs to look at cuts. The state cut our budget 4 percent across the board last year because we didn’t have money. Maybe the CTA ought to look at cuts. There’s nothing wrong with cuts. So many people are talking about spending. So many people are talking about more money. How about a little fiscal responsibility here?
Q. How much of a problem is pension funding for this state and to what extent does it inhibit what you can do with the rest of the budget?
I think it’s becoming our major burden on the state’s long-term and short-term financial obligations. We’re paying for some of the approaches of many years ago, before I was here, of putting things off, and we’ve got to catch up to it. It is a problem. We’re going to have to look to the CTA for some money, for a bailout — just a joke.
Senate Democratic Leadership
Jones, a legislator since 1973, was elected to a second term as Senate president. He represents Chicago’s far South Side, and some south suburbs. He’s a chief proponent of gambling expansion, touting it as a revenue source that could stave off further budget cuts.
Q. What are the issues you’d like to address this session?
I’d like to address the issue that is related to our capital program, our school construction, make sure schools around the state of Illinois have necessary support from the state through its bonding program so they can repair and build new schools as needed.
I’d like to address a broader program as related to early childhood education.
Q. In what sense, expanding opportunities?
Expanding opportunities. Yes.
Q. My understanding is that in the Chicago Public Schools it’s quite difficult to enroll your children in preschool without having to pay tuition?
If it’s difficult, then we need to find a way to make sure it’s done. It’s for all children, particularly in Chicago schools. We’ve got to try to see what we can do so that all children have access to early childhood education.
Q. How do you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style is one where it’s all-inclusive. We have a very diverse caucus. We’ve got caucuses within the caucus. And everyone has their input and we try to come together on an agreed agenda. It’s not my decision on what usually is a caucus decision. But I believe in inclusion, rather than just point them in one particular direction. My style is inclusion of the members.
Q. How difficult is that, since you have such a diverse caucus? For instance some people thought when the Senate went to Democratic leadership issues like gay rights or a state ban on assault weapons would be voted on?
Again, it’s a very diverse caucus. What impacts in one locale may have an adverse impact in another locale. We’ve got legislators from the urban areas, suburban, downstate, so we as a caucus come together to discuss this.
As [for] human rights legislation, that should not be a party or a Democratic issue. Human rights affect all, be it Democrat, Republican, upstate or downstate. So it shouldn’t be a party issue. The only thing is, Democrats are more progressive on those types of issues.
Q. So Democrats have to lead, but that issue needs Republicans too?
To be honest with themselves.
Q. You’ve been in the General Assembly since 1973. You just turned 69 last fall. Going into your second term as Senate president, do you feel any personal pressure to create a legacy?
When I came into the General Assembly, the number one issue then was the adequate funding of education. We passed that year, in 1973, the resource equalizer formula that funded education throughout the state of Illinois. Ever since that time, every year, adequate funding of education has been an issue. I’ve been at the forefront of trying to adequately fund education.
Hopefully next year , we will resolve that problem once and for all and relieve the burden of homeowners paying for education through the property tax and shift it to a more equitable way of funding it and that would be the state income tax.
Hopefully, we can come to a resolve on that issue and equalize the funding of education across the state of Illinois so that all children will have equal access to the public dollars being spent on education.
Q. Does that mean House Bill 750 [that shifts the reliance on local to state taxes]?
It could be 750 with some changes, but that’s the general concept. Of course, year after year, we continue to go through the same problem. My legacy will be one of trying to solve the problem of funding education for all children.
Q. You’ve become a major proponent for a Chicago casino. Is that something you see as part of your legacy?
We already have gaming in Illinois. It’s just more or less parity. Gaming is a means with which we use the revenue that is generated to deal with issues of funding for social programs, capital programs and it’s not something new for us. It’s already here. If Chicago gets gaming, then the revenue generated from that would help the entire state of Illinois.
Illinois loses a lot of money to Wisconsin and Indiana, so we can recapture those dollars if we had gaming in Chicago and the southern suburbs and Waukegan. We can recapture those dollars and keep them in the state of Illinois.
Q. You mentioned the need for a capital plan and, specifically, school construction.
Well, we have to have a dedicated revenue stream to pay for the bonds for this. How are we going to do that? As leaders we must lead. We recognize that as a problem, but our job is to come up with a solution. Gaming is one of the solutions, as far as the revenue to help deal with that problem.
Q. It’s also been talked about as a way to alleviate the Chicago Transit Authority’s budget woes.
The CTA, it’s a possibility there, but it also may require restructuring the [Regional Transportation Authority] so that you can have adequate change in the formula, based on ridership. Right now the formula is at a disadvantage to the CTA. Each year it gets worse and worse.
Q. How did you become the leading advocate of gambling expansion?
At the time we originally passed the legislation for gaming, I advocated it. But the mayor didn’t want it at that particular time. Five years ago when they dealt with the 10th license, I wanted that license to go to the southern suburbs, and so we’ve been discussing these issues with the other leaders. The leaders say we’ve got all these problems, but they’ve got to be willing to support some sort of tax revenue that’s going to solve the state’s problem.
The budget has been cut to the bone as it currently stands. So I know the mayor wants it to deal with his local budget. But, as it deals with his local budget, it would generate maybe $700 million to the state treasury and those dollars can help solve many problems. So that’s the reason why I am a strong advocate.
Q. How much progress have we made toward eliminating the record $5 billion budget deficit of two years ago?
There have been significant cuts in the state budget. We made significant progress with our one-time revenue and some changes in closing tax loopholes, which generate a continuing flow of revenue, but we need a steady stream of revenue. Our problem is not on the spending side. It’s on the revenue side.
We need an infusion of new revenue to deal with the budget. I’m strongly opposed to balancing the budget on the backs of the schoolchildren of Illinois, as well as the needy, particularly the elderly of the state. And so I’m for whatever it takes to get some continuing revenue to solve the problem.
Q. The Republicans picked up one seat in the Senate. What does that mean for you?
It’s not much of a change. Pat Welch, I believe, has been a good legislator. He’s an excellent floor debater. He knows the issues and can articulate. It’s a loss for us, but that’s the nature of the beast in this business. It will not change, basically, the relationship with the other side of the aisle. I intend to continue to work with them and work on issues that we can agree on.
There will be times, philosophically, when we will disagree. I’ll continue to work with them on issues and have their input as it relates to their concerns. But we are the majority and, being the majority, it’s our responsibility to set the agenda and push forward. At the same time, I don’t intend to just do it one way. I’ll seek their input, but I’m not going to let their disagreements stop us from doing what we believe is necessary and should be done.
Q. As one of you appropriations chairs, Pat Welch helped carry the last two budgets through the legislature, including the “rolling stock” fee hikes reviled by the trucking industry.
No, that was not the issue. He had legislation in to close many of the corporate loopholes. He believed there has been a shift from corporations to individuals as related to their share of state revenues. So he long advocated that. That had nothing to do with his downfall in the election.
Q. So no one will be afraid to take on an appropriations role?
Oh, no. No one’s going to be afraid. No. What I’m saying is that, as it has been pointed out, about nine or 10 years ago, one in every $4 that came to the state treasury came from corporations. What many of the corporations have done — their skilled tax lawyers have found a way to avoid in-state taxes, which has shifted more of the burden of financing state government to the individual. Now today it’s about one in nine. So it’s those loopholes that have caused the state to be short on revenue, an issue we have to deal with.
Q. Going back to last summer’s budget negotiations, you’re the one legislative leader aligned with the governor. What kind of relationship do you have with the governor?
My alliance with the governor is one that, philosophically, we agree on the funding of early childhood education. We agree on increased funding for elementary and secondary education. We agree on expanding FamilyCare and KidCare. So that’s where we’re aligned. That was the whole fight on the budget.
And, coming from the other chamber, they wanted a no-growth formula for education, which would have been no additional dollars for the current fiscal year. That’s where we disagree. So the governor and I happen to agree on the same issue. Had the House agreed that we’re going to do education, we’re going to take care of FamilyCare and KidCare, then we would have been on the same page.
I have a very inclusive caucus. And the views I express publicly are the views that the members of my caucus express. As I’ve said, I’m one who believes in inclusion.
So, after going through that long overtime session, we went in seeking approximately $400 million in new spending for education. We ended up with $389 million. We went in seeking $20 million in additional money for early childhood education. We ended up $30 million for early childhood education. We went in seeking additional dollars for FamilyCare and KidCare and that remained the same. We ended up with those dollars for that.
So, what I’m saying to you, in essence, is that we went through all that overtime session to end up just almost where we started.
And these are issues that my caucus members strongly advocate and support.
Q. During the fall legislative campaigns, Republicans running against Democrats downstate argued that having Chicago Democrats control state government was a bad thing.
I’m glad most voters across Illinois are more intelligent than that. Downstate Illinois, under the plan we originally passed on May 31, would have received more dollars for education in the classroom than what we ended up with. What downstate Republicans did not say is they took the dollars and shifted them to the wealthy suburban school districts, which will come back to haunt them next time around. How can they justify that?
We had adequate funding for schools all across the state of Illinois. That’s reflective of the members of my caucus. They tried to portray it as upstate versus downstate. No, it was not. And the voters didn’t buy that in southern Illinois. In Quincy, they did not buy that. I thought the General Assembly had gone far beyond that divisive type of politics. Just because you’re from a different region does not mean you do not share the same values.
Q. Republicans say that when you ensure there is extra money in the budget for City Colleges of Chicago or Chicago State University that those are examples where downstate is losing out.
That’s really unfounded. It’s just a fair distribution of dollars, equitable distribution. The community college board recognized that the funding formula is flawed, and since the funding formula is flawed, it punishes city colleges. And so they believe it should be corrected.
Q. So is that like the CTA? An old formula doesn’t reflect current needs?
Yes. Right. Changing populations. When you say the Chicago Transit Authority, what you in the media do not write is the transit authority services about 39 suburban communities. It’s not just isolated in Chicago.
If some would support gaming for Chicago, for example, that’s $700 million in state tax dollars that will go to fund many of the communities throughout the state of Illinois. If they support expansion of McCormick Place, which in turn brings more conventions, those tourists who come there pay taxes on the dollars they spend, state tax dollars. Those tax dollars help all the other communities throughout the state of Illinois. What I’m saying is, the voters are more intelligent than that. They understand that. Chicago is a big economic engine and that economic engine fuels revenue to all communities throughout the state of Illinois.
Q. Do you feel that you’re given the respect that you deserve as a legislative leader? Do you feel you get as much respect as, say, House Speaker Michael Madigan, be it in the media or elsewhere?
Let me put it this way to you: I’ve known Speaker Madigan for many years. Ten years I spent in the House with him. He has acquired quite a bit of knowledge and so forth. But everything has changed now. At one point he was the only Democrat in the state that Democrats could go to. Now they have myself and the governor to go to. So it’s a shared responsibility.
Now, if those of you in the media think otherwise, that’s your problem. I’ve never considered it my problem. That’s your problem because it tells me that you really don’t understand it.
Q. Do you expect another struggle on the budget? The speaker and the Republican leaders say their budget coalition will continue this year.
I’m a Democrat. I believe in helping Democrat elected officials. I don’t mind working with my other colleagues, but I’m not going to involve myself in a conspiracy to hurt the schoolchildren and the poor and the elderly of this state. Therefore, the state budget needs revenue. The people elect us to lead, not to be in position to do nothing and try to blame someone else for it. So you must lead on these issues.
You must have the courage to find the revenue and do the right thing. I don’t like to get involved in anything that’s being obstructive. I don’t want to say, this is happening, where’s the revenue? When you’re in position to try to help get it done, that’s our job. That’s what we must do.
Q. How much of an issue is pension funding for the state?
Well, we haven’t even gotten into that as of yet. I realize what the pension boards indicated. But, again, it’s revenue that must come out of general revenue dollars. And the crunch is here. So how do we deal with those problems? We know it’s here. I think we should do the responsible thing and get the revenue source there to deal with it. And I’m quite certain we will deal with that in the upcoming budget negotiations.
Q. Republicans point to their victory in the 5th District Illinois Supreme Court race as a referendum for caps on medical malpractice awards for pain and suffering.
It wasn’t a referendum on caps. It was a referendum on the issue, as related to medical malpractice in the southern region of the state. That’s why my senators who represent those communities strongly supported legislation to reform medical malpractice, and we passed that legislation out of the Senate. It got stalled in the House. So, again, I have a diverse caucus and I try to reflect the views of all the members of the caucus. Even though [Sen. John] Cullerton is my judiciary chairman, he may have one view but that view may have an adverse impact on other members and other members have their say. And that’s what happens.
Q. In general, you don’t support caps?
In general, I don’t. But, again, I personally may not feel that way, but I don’t let my personal views impact the decision that’s to be made by this caucus.
Senate Republican Leadership
Watson, a 31-year legislative veteran, was elected minority leader in 2003 and likely will start another term this month. Watson has fought to rein in state debt and reform medical malpractice laws. He hails from downstate Greenville.
Q. What issues would you like to see addressed in the spring session?
Well, other than the budget, this last year I thought medical malpractice was the second-most important thing that needed to be dealt with. Unfortunately, session came and went. We’re going to continue to put pressure on to get something that’s meaningful, long-term, and solves the problem of the cost of medical malpractice insurance and keeps doctors in Illinois. That’s basically what it’s all about.
It’s not a crisis stage, I guess, throughout the state, or we’d see more of an interest in something being done from the leadership here: the governor, the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate. But once it reaches that same crisis state that we’re experiencing in the Metro East area, Carbondale, Will County [and] Lake County — some of these pocketed areas that seem to have more of a problem — something will finally be done.
Q. How does the Republican victory in the 5th District Illinois Supreme Court race affect the issue?
It sends a huge message. That was the issue in the race, other than the fact that Lloyd Karmeier is just a quality, classy person who was an outstanding judge in his own right. He deserved the election just based on that. But medical malpractice became a part of it. And Gordon Maag tried to grab it. He tried to get hold of it, too, and all this advertising that he did, material that he sent out, but it didn’t stick. It didn’t work because the funding for his campaign came from the very people who are opposed to anything that would be significant. So it was a referendum on medical malpractice, that race.
Q. Can you call the race a referendum on medical malpractice when the most visible campaign ads had to do with the two candidates’ records on sex offenders?
Deep down, the issue was the people of southern Illinois, where they see doctors leaving their communities, and the access, not only the quality, but basic access to health care being impacted because of the physicians leaving the state. That was the underlying issue, that the hospital association and the doctors, the health care industry was able to communicate that it was important for Lloyd Karmeier.
To me, that was the driving issue, even though we had all this. I think there was a lot of confusion. People watched the ads, they didn’t really understand. And then, of course, it all started to come out that the campaign advertising had reached a very questionable level by the bar association and others. So I think people tuned those out.
Q. The major impasse between the two parties involves capping plaintiff awards for pain and suffering. Is there something that can be done short of that or are caps the only solution?
I think it's been proven in other states that caps work. They help drive down costs and also give the insurance industry a means to be able to stave their risk. What is their potential for risk? Whether it’s a $1 million cap or a $250,000 cap or whatever it might be, I think it’s important to establish something.
We’ve seen it work in 24 other states, and I think it could work very well here. And that, to me, is the issue of medical malpractice, establishing some form of cap. We could do this with a constitutional amendment or we could do it legislatively. If there’s some question to what the [state] Supreme Court might rule, we could do a constitutional amendment, but so far we’re getting resistance by the leadership.
Q. How much progress has the state made toward eliminating what was being called a record $5 billion budget deficit two years ago?
We’ve made some progress, but only because, I think, we went into extra session days. This coming session, we’re going to have to deal with the whole issue again. That’s been an issue and a contention I’ve had since day one. The first call I made to the governor, [I said] “We have a $5 billion deficit. I want to work with you. I want to be part of the solution. I’m in the minority. I know what that means. The only thing I ask is no new programs, no new spending.” He trots out his first budget two years ago of more programs, more new spending, and we just took an exception to that and have been arguing that every since.
And all of this is predicated on one-time revenue sources, the scheme of budget-balancing with the pension money. That’s gone away. All the fees and all the extraction of money [from dedicated funds], that one-time availability is gone. The governor, unfortunately, doesn’t have the fiscal restraint and discipline that is needed to do the things that Jim Edgar did when [he was called] Governor No and he made those tough decisions. We haven’t had that by this governor.
Q. Last year, the governor wanted to close prisons in Vandalia, St. Charles and Pontiac. Will we see proposed closing of state facilities in Republican territory again this year?
I would be very surprised. Ironically, all three of those prisons you mentioned were in Republican Senate districts. Of course, the governor didn’t know where they were, you know. But, no, I’d be surprised if he took that direction again. I think he lost that battle and he lost it big time, both in the legislature and in the public. And I think that he doesn’t want to go through that again. Nor do I. And we’ve had that conversation, privately, the governor and I. So I feel comfortable he is not going to target anything such as Vandalia, Pontiac or St. Charles. There may be other facilities out there. It might be you tomorrow, that kind of thing. So beware. But I don’t think he’ll go down that same path again, especially if we are able, and it looks like we are, to maintain this coalition of the speaker, myself and Tom Cross.
Q. What is the staying power of that coalition? Is it strictly budget-related, because the two parties have different ideals when it comes to other subjects?
There are some differences, no doubt about it, medical malpractice being one of them. But I think a lot of good public policy came from those 54 days of overtime. We unfortunately had to have 60-some memorandums of understanding signed by the governor. That’s not the way I’d like to do business. That’s the way we think we have to with this administration.
The road fund diversions were brought to a halt. The debt responsibility act, which we think is excellent public policy, the facility closure act, those kinds of issues all came out of that 54-day extension and were cooperative efforts between the leaders, without, of course, the president of the Senate and the governor.
I think those will serve the people well for a long time and I see no reason why [the coalition would end] and I think the speaker feels the same way. The conversation I’ve had with him is, “What happens the second Wednesday of January when we all get sworn in? Are we back to the back bench in the minority?” And his attitude is no. He thought that a lot of good came from our cooperative effort.
Q. Are memorandums of understanding going to become common practice for agreements legislators have with the governor and his staff?
I think until they prove that they can be trusted and do the things that they’ve committed to do. That’s what brought about the memorandums of understanding. That’s the only reason. And we’re liable to start doing that with the Senate president, because we’ve had some problems, commitments he made during the regular session and the overtime session on bills that would be called that he’s not living up to.
You’re only as good as your word around here and when that goes away you get these issues like memorandums of understanding and you get a little lack of cooperative effort between all parties working together.
Q. That brings up a style question. You’re often portrayed as more combative than House Republican Leader Tom Cross.
That’s not my personality, though. You don’t know me, but people that do [say] this is not Frank. But I have some passion about my beliefs. I really, truly do. I have some principles that guided me when I came here. And they still do. So when somebody goes a different direction than I think we should, I’m going to stand up and voice my opposition and concern. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve done it differently at different times. The means of how I project it sometimes is different. I think that’s the way I’ll be. That’s just me. That’s the way I am.
Q. Is that indicative of different atmospheres in the House and Senate? You hinted at some tension with the Senate president. Are there different working environments for Republicans in each chamber?
We’re very diverse, our caucus. And we believe people should vote their district. They should vote their conscience. They should vote their beliefs and philosophy. It just so happens that I think on a lot of issues we’re able to unite everybody and stick together pretty good. We’ve had a decent history of that. Maybe it’s smaller numbers. Maybe it’s the way we operate. I don’t know. I’m very pleased with the way this caucus sticks together when they believe they’re right. And when we do that we’re pretty effective.
Q. Should the state or Illinois municipalities look for an expansion of gambling to aid their budgets, philosophically or realistically?
Members in our caucus have different views on this. But I’ve not shut the door on what we could consider an expansion of gambling. Now, traditionally, I’ve not been a big proponent of that. Horse racing is important, I think, to the economy of Illinois, and that’s something that I’ve been pretty active in. But casinos, riverboats, over the years I’ve been here I’ve been all over the map on this. I’m not really somebody who thinks it’s a good thing. But in my position as leader I think I have to take a different approach and that’s why I say I’m not shutting the door.
The way it’s currently structured, the proposal that’s being discussed, I don’t know if we’ll see it this spring or not. Carving out special considerations for the Chicago boat, casino [is] actually what it’ll be, a land based casino. It’s really a huge step. That has some concern for us.
Public ownership, appointment of the oversight board by the mayor, taking that responsibility, some of that, away from the gaming board. I think that doesn’t sell well in this caucus.
Q. You, and Senate Republicans in general, don’t think Chicago should own a license. Are their specific problems with Chicago or do you think no city should own a license?
I just think public ownership, in general, is a problem. That would be new ground broke, nationally. There’s no public ownership of casinos in any state.
Q. So you wouldn’t support state ownership either?
Q. How big of a problem is pension funding?
It’s a big problem. And that’s something, again, that we did in the overtime session last year. The governor wanted to forgive payments and that’s how we got into this problem to begin with. We aren’t living up to the obligation of what makes the pension system sound. We were making progress. When we passed that bill that required the continuing appropriation for the pensions — that put us on the track of making some progress. Now, of course, we’re talking about diverting from that. That would be bad public policy. We shouldn’t be doing that. And it does obviously impact our ability to spend money on other programs, but it is an obligation of the state and, if we don’t pay it, somebody will at some point in time. We shouldn’t leave that obligation to a future generation or a future governor or a future General Assembly. We should live [up to] that obligation to make those pension systems as sound as we can.
Q. Republicans picked up one seat in the Senate. Democrats still have a three-vote edge. Practically speaking, what does that mean?
It’s movement. That’s what we had to have. Obviously, we would have liked to have more, but we got one. Politics is about addition, not subtraction, especially if you’re trying to take back control. We kept Pam Althoff. They spent $1 million trying to beat Pam Althoff. And because of her work in the district and the organization that she put together, her committee, she withstood all that. And we were able to pick up one additional seat in a very important race in Majority Leader Pat Welch’s district.
And in ’06 the remaining two-thirds of the Senate is up again, including the 49th District, which, because of the death of Sen. [Vince] Demuzio, will be up again. So there are other opportunities out there for us, and we’re looking forward to advancing more numbers in ’06.
Q. You’re the only legislative leader from downstate. Do you feel there are certain issues you have to take the lead on?
Having somebody from downstate in the room when the final decisions are made, I think, is good for far downstate. I think it’s good for the state as a whole. I mean, the geographic region of the state and the power that comes from the leadership in this state, the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president all being from Chicago with Chicago interests, in my mind is not good. That was an issue in the election and it resonated out there. People understand that some of the agenda that is put forth by the leadership of the Democratic Party currently is not in step with what I think is mainstream thinking for the people of Illinois.
Q. Does that mean too much attention and resources for Chicago and not enough for the rest of Illinois?
Yeah, I’d say that’s a big part of it. The community colleges are a perfect example. They ended up getting additional funds for the community colleges of the city of Chicago while the rest of the community colleges didn’t. Chicago State continues to get more additional funding when they want to cut other universities in this state. It definitely is an issue and it creates a ripple in this caucus when those kinds of things go on.
Q. When should the governor play a role in advancing or halting legislation? Is gambling expansion a prime example?
He should be leading the charge. And he hasn’t.
I think he has to be directly involved and with an understanding, I think, from members of his own party that he’s going to sign legislation or certainly support it before it can move forward.
Q. So not necessarily in public, but let the members know?
I think he’s better off being public. Just be out there. Lead. He needs to be carrying the flag and at this point he hasn’t.
Q. How do you describe your leadership style and how does it compare or contrast to the style of your predecessor, James “Pate” Philip?
I’d like to think that I’m a bottom-up leader. We have caucuses. We have very diverse opinions, and we give everybody an opportunity to participate. I delegate an awful lot of authority to members, which is helpful to me and to members, giving them a stake in what goes on. Contrasting to Pate? Pate was unique in his own way, for sure. But he was also effective. I don’t know that I follow that way of doing business.
Not comparing myself to Pate, but I think that I communicate more with members. I’d like to think I do. I hope they think I do. I think that’s important, to give a responsibility to your caucus members, bring them in to being responsible. My spokesmen on committees have a lot to say about how we decide public policy in our caucus and when we take a united stance. And it’s based predominately on my members and their attitude and their ability to communicate their own concern.
Q. The seat you picked up came at the defeat of Pat Welch, who, as an appropriations chairman, helped carry Gov. Blagojevich's budgets. Did unpopular fees, such a rolling stock, figure in his defeat?
We got a candidate out of that. The guy that ran was in the trucking industry. He saw first-hand the devastation of the legislation that was pushed by the administration and sponsored by the majority and that was an issue in the campaign, very definitely. It was all about jobs, primarily.
Q. Will the Senate Democrats have someone who wants to take Welch’s role?
I think that whoever it is will be very careful and maybe a little more concerned about the short- and long-term impact of what they’re doing. And I would like to think the governor would be the same way. And I’ve had those conversations with him, the governor. And I don’t know whether it falls on deaf ears or not. We’ll soon find out. I assume the budget will be delivered in February.
Q. In two years there will be a race for governor and two-thirds of the Senate will be up for re-election? Will Alan Keyes be a factor? He says he wants to help rebuild the Illinois Republican Party? Will he have a role?
If he’s about building the party and wants to be part of a positive influence, then we’ll welcome that. Once again, we’re about addition, not subtraction. We would certainly welcome his input, if that’s his interest.