A Conversation With Cindy Cunningham, Democratic Candidate For State House In The 104th District
Cynthia Cunningham, who goes by Cindy, is the Democratic candidate in the 104th District State House race.
The resident of Royal, and first-time candidate, said she was inspired to run for a seat in the General Assembly after Illinois' recent budget impasse. Cunningham said the failure to pass a budget for more than two years affected the senior programs she advocates for as president of the Illinois Adult Day Services Association. She also serves as Legislative Chair for the Illinois Association of Community Care Program Home Care Providers.
She is vying for the house seat previously held by Catlin Republican Chad Hays, who announced last year that he would not seek re-election, then resigned from his seat in August to take a position with a private non-profit organization. Former Vermilion County Board Chair Mike Marron, a Republican, was appointed to the seat, and is running for election for the first time.
Cunningham recently spoke with Illinois Public Media about what she would do to prevent another gridlock over the budget, as well as other issues she’d like to address in her district if elected, ranging from curbing gun violence to changing the school funding formula to rely less on property taxes. Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Illinois Public Media: The state recently went two years without a budget. If elected, how would you make sure that this does not happen again?
Cunningham: I think there's one major change that we can make that would keep it from happening again and that is a change to how the contracts that the state has are written. If we can make it a provision of the contract the state must cancel the contract if they don't have funds to pay for the contract, I think that would eliminate any possibility of a budget impasse. During the budget impasse, services continued without payment from the state of Illinois. If people actually lost services I think that there would be a huge outcry and it would be very unpopular.
IPM: By not having those contracts go through or having the threat of those contracts not going through?
Cunningham: Right. If there was an actual consequence to lawmakers for not having a budget, such as the very things that they want to see funded are not funded during a budget impasse, I think we could stop it.
IPM: Even after the recent tax increase to 4.9 percent, the budget for the current fiscal year looks to be about $1 billion out of balance. Do you support further revenue increases to bring that budget back into balance?
Cunningham: First, I don't agree that it's a billion dollars out of balance. I do see that the bill backlog is being paid down with a 4.95 percent tax rate that we've got right now. I do think that we need more funding for schools. So, I think we're going to need some more funding. I don't think that the middle class can take another tax increase, ao I am in favor of a progressive income tax so that people who make more can pay a little bit more.
IPM: Some argue that a progressive income tax would still raise taxes on the middle class. You're saying that wouldn't be the case?
Cunningham: I can't tell you exactly where the rate should increase but you can design it so it doesn't increase taxes to the middle class. It's ridiculous to say that we wouldn't have control of that because we could say exactly where the increases were going to be and exactly where the increases aren't. A progressive income tax seeks specifically to tax those with lower incomes at a lower rate and those with higher incomes at a slightly higher rate.
IPM: The two men at the center of the budget fight are Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan. Will you support Michael Madigan for speaker?
Cunningham: First, we have to see who is running. Of course he's going to be running. Second, if anybody thinks that my one vote is going to preclude Michael Madigan from being speaker of the house that's just delusional. There are already a significant number of people from Chicago who are going to vote for Speaker Madigan again, and all a vote against him would do would be to alienate our area from him. And I don't see the benefit of alienating ourselves from Speaker Madigan.
IPM: According to the Illinois budget book, the state has about $219 billion in public pension obligations and $85 billion in assets. What would you do to close that pension gap?
Cunningham: We don't pay that entirely in one year. We make payments toward that. We've been making our payments since the budget impasse has ended. And during most of the budget impasse we made those payments as well. We need to continue to make those budget payments. They are significant but this is a group of people that as part of their compensation they were promised that they would receive compensation in retirement and we have to honor that obligation.
IPM: What issues do you think are most important to your district?
In the Champaign County area, we have a number of retirees who are paying increasing amounts of property tax for schools that their kids no longer attend. And in Vermilion County we have areas that don't have a lot of real estate dollars to tax that are being taxed at a level that's just about unsustainable. And it still isn't enough to cover costs in schools. Westville has had to co-op with Danville Area Community College in order to provide enough teachers. We have got to have property tax relief. We have to fund more of our schools funding through the state of Illinois rather than through local property tax. That's one that cuts across the entire district.
Protecting the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River
We've got coal ash that's stored right on the banks of the Vermilion River, and it's just a matter of time according to experts before it would leach in and be a huge pollution problem. It's one of the top 10 most endangered rivers. We need to have the coal ash moved out of the floodplain. That's a huge issue.
Gun violence prevention
We have gun violence in Danville and we are seeing increased gun violence in Champaign that needs to be addressed. We need some antiviolence programs and we need opportunities for some of these young men to be more economically involved in the community. We have some unemployment in Danville and all that needs to be addressed. We have some areas in Danville that just need some community programs and some neighborhood funding in order to improve those areas.
IPM: Are there specific gun violence prevention programs that you've seen that are successful that that you would like to see go to that area?
Cunningham: Well, absolutely. In the city of Chicago, prior to the budget impasse, Lurie's Children's Hospital kind of headed up the charge up there up in the Chicago area and decided to treat gun violence as a public health issue before all funding was cut off. Violence in Chicago was actually dropping. And you can chart against the cut off of the funds. You can see the rise of gun violence in Chicago. So I would like to replicate some of the programs that they were using up in Chicago.
IPM: The poverty rate in Danville is twice what it is in Champaign-Urbana. In Rantoul, the poverty rate is one and a half times, according to the Census. What would you do to help address that?
Cunningham: The area has been neglected from state programs for a very long time. We need a capital budget. We need a capital budget anyway to improve infrastructure but it would it would also do would be to give our local economies a big boost. I would start there with a capital budget, hire our local people, and then things will follow.