The candidates for the 88th Illinois House District have different ideas on how the state can aid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But all three agree on one thing: state government should have acted sooner to blunt the financial blow of the virus.
The district covers Morton, Washington, parts of Bloomington, and much of rural Tazewell and McLean counties.
The seat is currently held by Republican Keith Sommer of Morton, who took office in 1999. He's challenged by Democrat Karla-Bailey Smith and Libertarian Ken Allison.
Allison is a certified public accountant and small business owner who lives in Washington. He said state government could have been more transparent about where COVID relief dollars were going and left it up to local governments to figure out what's best for their communities.
“Our small businesses are being crushed, at levels that most people just don’t realize and just don’t want to hear. The reality is, this all could have been prevented,” Allison said.
Bailey-Smith, an artist and small business owner from Bloomington, agreed the little guys need the most help.
“Many of our small businesses were left out of the PPP loan programs, and the federal money that was later used for grants came too late to save some of our beloved small businesses,” said Bailey-Smith.
She said moving forward, lawmakers can continue to prioritize loans and grants to small businesses to keep them open, suggested freezing rents and mortgages for small business owners and offering tax incentives to them over larger competitors.
Sommer said he was disappointed more of his colleagues in the statehouse didn't come to the table at the start of the pandemic to chart the best course through it.
But even now, he said, Gov. JB Pritzker isn't letting lawmakers in on the decision making.
“Before we move forward, the legislature must be part of the government,” Sommer said. “We are an equal branch. We cannot proceed in the next spring session—or even another veto session--without the governor recognizing that we have as much role in this as he does.”
Bailey-Smith said one of the best ways for the state to get back on track financially is to adopt a graduated income tax. That's something Sommer and Allison oppose, claiming it would hurt business owners, farmers and middle class Illinoisans.
“It gets us closer to a balanced budget and actually it would help small businesses, because the Fair Tax only raises taxes on those people who have a net profit of $250,000 or more,” she said. “Most small businesses don’t reach that. Our small family farms don’t reach that, either.”
Bailey Smith added the Clean Energy Jobs Act could help the state’s economy recover from COVID-19 by creating new work opportunities.
Sommer said recovery has been stunted because federal relief dollars given to Illinois have largely gone to Chicago and larger communities, instead of downstate municipalities in need.
"But on the other hand, I don't feel that the federal government should fiscally bail out irresponsible spending and government. Not all our municipalities are in dire straits financially,” Sommer said. “McLean County, Bloomington, Morton, what I find is those communities that have managed their money appropriately in the past will be fine in the future. It seems like the task ahead of us is trying to address the issues that our larger communities have."
Sommer blames the state's financial woes on spending beyond its means and an unwillingness to make necessary spending cuts.
Allison agreed, but said Sommer shares the blame.
"Keith likes to speak about, you know, the General Assembly as if that's not him. He's been in that office for 21 years,” Allison said. “That's a long time to be continuing to say the same thing. This happened under his watch."
Both Allison and Bailey-Smith repeatedly promised to "follow the money" to ensure it goes where it's needed—though their ideas on government spending diverge.
Bailey-Smith describes herself as a lifelong advocate for LGBT issues, gun safety and the environment.
“I decided to run for this office when I attended a legislative breakfast that every single one of our state representatives and senators for McLean County is a white, Republican man,” she said. “We need more moms in Springfield. More people who are relatable and visibly active and doing work in our community.”
Bailey-Smith said she’s also passionate about worker’s rights and protecting union jobs. If elected, Bailey-Smith said, she’ll continue to host weekly town halls to hear concerns from constituents.
Sommer, a real estate broker by profession, said he’s proud of his record in Springfield on two fronts.
“Firstly, I have a flawless record of voting against bloated budgets, burdensome tax increases and never ending state spending and borrowing,” Sommer said. “I fight regulation that infringes on the constitutional rights of our citizens, support our free enterprise system and demand an equal voice for the citizens I represent.”
Sommer said he’s also a “champion” for children and family causes.
“As an adoptive parent, I've found that adoption processes in Illinois were abominable. Fifteen years ago, 12 years ago, a special committee was formed to address those issues—to clean up domestic and international adoption, where anyone on the street could charge you $50,000 to get a child and have have no real documentation as to where that child came from,” Sommer said. “The other main issue is child welfare and abuse. DCFS has a horrendous record and every year we see the publishing of names and circumstances of over 100 children that have died. That is unacceptable.”
Allison, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army and Air Force, also lists family issues as one of his top priorities. Allison said, as a member of the East Peoria Community High School Board, he also values education.
“I often times tell people that if it's not good for children, or moms—soccer moms or single moms—that I don't really have too much of an interest in it,” Allison said. “Because at the end of the day, that's where life starts. And I think from an education standpoint, we have to think a little bit more outside the box.”
Allison said he considers himself conservative. If elected, he said, his goal would be to foster trust and transparency.
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