PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday February 11th, 2014, 4:57pm

Candidates In Crowded 40th District Race Talk Pension Reform, Other Issues

From taxes to public education funding to statewide pension reform, the six candidates vying to represent Illinois' 40th District on Chicago's Northwest Side laid out their positions on a number of issues at a public forum Monday night. Progress Illinois was there for the forum.

From taxes to public education funding to statewide pension reform, the six candidates vying to represent Illinois' 40th District on Chicago's Northwest Side laid out their positions on a number of issues at a public forum Monday night.

The candidates set to appear on the ballot for one of the most contested Democratic primary races this year for an Illinois House seat include Jaime Andrade, Aaron Goldstein, Wendy Jo Harmston, Mark Pasieka and Nancy Schiavone.

The remaining Democratic candidate, Melanie Ferrand, was removed from the ballot on January 6 due to a paperwork technicality. But at the forum, Ferrand, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher-librarian and community activist, said the paperwork issue has since been fixed. Ferrand, who considers herself to be the "only true progressive" in the race, is currently in the process of appealing the decision and is hopeful that the matter will be worked out in time for the March 18 primary.

Andrade, the incumbent, is a former aide to the now retired Chicago Ald. Dick Mell (33rd). He was appointed to the 40th District seat in August to fill Deb Mell's vacancy after she left the post, which she held since 2009, to succeed her father as alderman of Chicago's 33rd Ward.

Throughout the night, almost all of the six candidates tossed around the word "independent", explaining that they would bring new leadership to the area that has been dominated by "machine" politicians.

"This is our district. Not [House Speaker Michael] Madigan's district, not [Rahm] Emanuel's district," said Goldstein, an attorney in private practice. "This has been my life, to stand for others."

Notably, Goldstein was a defense attorney for convicted former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich during his second trial. (Dick Mell and Deb Mell are Blagojevich's in-laws).

Illinois' 40th District incorporates parts of the Logan Square, Albany Park, Avondale and Irving Park neighborhoods in Chicago. The Old Irving Park Association and seven other community groups hosted the forum, held at Irving Park Baptist Church.

Anna Zolkowski Sobor, president of the Old Irving Park Association, said the 40th District includes some 106,000 residents, 45 percent of whom are white, while 45 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are Asian. In the 2012 state representative primary, only 4,000 of the district's 45,000 registered voters went to the polls when the incumbent ran unopposed, according to Zolkowski Sobor.

She predicts voter turnout in the district will not be much better this time around, meaning whoever "marks their ballot on March 18 will decide this race."

State Education Funding

The candidates were asked how they would work to level the playing field when it comes to education funding for Illinois students. School districts rely heavily on property taxes for funding, which can lead to a great deal of funding inequality from district to district, community members noted. Also, Illinois has prorated the funds it provides the Illinois State Board of Education to disperse among school districts since 2010. This year, school districts received 89 percent of the funding they would normally be entitled to under current law.

Ferrand said the state's education funding system needs to be reformed.

"We shouldn't have to worry about what neighborhood we live in to determine whether we have a 'good' school or 'bad' school or if we're going to leave the city because of that," she said.

Goldstein said the rate at which Illinois schools are currently funded "is absolutely disgusting." A progressive income tax could be the "number one funding generator" for both public education and other state services, he said. 

Overall, all six candidates said they support a progressive tax system in Illinois that would apply higher rates to larger incomes and lower rates to smaller incomes. The state constitution currently restricts Illinois to a flat income tax, meaning all taxpayers are taxed at the same rate, 5 percent, despite their income. Both the House and Senate would have to pass a resolution with supermajorities to put a referendum on the ballot that would amend the state constitution and allow a change in the income tax system. 

Andrade pointed out that he is a co-sponsor of a proposed amendment that would result in a state progressive income tax. He also supports using tax increment financing (TIF) surplus funds to fund education.

Nancy Schiavone, a lawyer who runs a firm in Logan Square, also talked about TIFs. Existing TIF districts in the state should be audited, she said, and all surplus funds returned to the appropriate taxing bodies, such as public school districts. TIF programs in the state often lack transparency, she added, and a moratorium should be placed on them until "we have an ability to see what's going on."

Later in the forum, however, Schiavone said she wants Chicago to ramp up its Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) program, which uses TIF dollars to help local businesses make infrastructure improvements. Although Schiavone said she is dubious of Chicago's TIF program overall, she believes the SBIF program is an important economic-development tool and an appropriate use of the public funds.

Meanwhile, Harmston, a former public school teacher and a long-time patient advocate focused on crisis intervention, argued that the state needs to re-prioritize its existing revenue so that education funding is a top issue.

Pasieka, an electrical engineer, said he does not "see a simple solution to undo the damage" that has stemmed from inadequate public education funding in the state, but he urged community members to share their ideas with him.

Jobs And Corporate Tax Breaks

Schiavone will not "support any legislation that adds the burden to working families by putting more tax pressure on them by giving handouts to corporate interests." She was referring to the proposal introduced by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) last month that looks to cut the business income tax in half.

Goldstein later explained that he "takes personal offense that our speaker is asking for this huge tax break just after he told all the workers to share their burden and to give away parts of their pensions." Instead of income tax cuts for businesses, Goldstein said Illinois should transition into a "green economy" that is environmentally friendly and "pro workers."

Also referencing Madigan's proposal, Andrade said he could not support a business income tax cut at the moment. He explained that it is not clear yet what will happen with the temporary income tax hike for both personal and corporate rates that is scheduled to expire on January 1, 2015. 

Andrade, Goldstein and Ferrand also noted that they support raising the state's minimum wage to aid job creation. 

Harmston took a different opinion on taxes. She is in favor of reducing income taxes for both the personal and corporate rate, which is "different than giving corporations the tax-incentive breaks that we hear." She expressed skepticism about corporate tax breaks because it is "unproven whether we really have created and retained more jobs across the board."

Pasieka is against tax breaks for big corporations and believes firms would remain in Illinois even without such incentives.

Pension Reform

Andrade said he voted for the controversial statewide pension reform bill, SB 1, explaining that something "had to be done to stop the spiral of our economy."

If Ferrand had been in office, she would have stood "very firmly against" the measure, which Gov. Pat Quinn signed back in December. Ferrand, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, said she was shocked that so many state lawmakers voted for the bill.

"We must have people at the table, teachers, other state workers, so that others are not making decisions about our future and our senior years," she said. 

Goldstein and Schiavone are not in support of the recent pension reform law either, noting that it probably violates the state constitution.

Harmston did not know whether she would have voted for the plan if she were in office. But she acknowledged that she "would have voted for something to be done."

Pasieka, however, believes the state broke its contract with state employees. 

"If a plumber comes over and doesn't install my toilet right, I don't pay them. I don't think some of these representatives downstate should be getting paid," he said. "As a matter of fact, I don't think I would take a paycheck. I would probably donate it to CPS. They need that money more than I do ... We can't afford to do this at the expense of taxpayers and the teachers. It's their retirements that we're taking away from them. You don't do that to somebody."

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