A Conversation with Shirley Bell, Democratic Candidate For The 110th Illinois House District
Democrat Shirley Bell of Mattoon is running for state representative in the 110th Illinois House District, which runs from Charleston and Mattoon in Coles County, down to Robinson in Crawford County and Lawrenceville in Lawrence County.
Bell is running against Republican Chris Miller of Oakland. The incumbent, Republican Reggie Phillips, is not seeking reelection.
Bell is a retired Eastern Illinois University professor. In an interview with Illinois Public Media’s Jim Meadows, she says frustration over the state budget impasse inspired her to run for the General Assembly.
Bell: We need to elect representatives who are committed to passing an annual budget, annually --- That's why it's called an annual budget --- and to working together. And by working together I mean working together in a bipartisan way compromising negotiating to actually solve the problem and produce a budget so that we meet our obligations, so that everything can run.
Meadows: Do you think opportunities were missed during the budget impasse, where there could have been some sort of agreement?
Bell: I think opportunities have been missed for many years. We have to solve the structural problem in the budget. I believe that everything's on the table: spending and revenue. And we actually have to have representatives who are willing to sit down and work together and solve the problems so that we can meet our commitments.
Meadows: Well, Mr. Pritzker the Democratic candidate, is proposing a graduated income tax. Do you support that? And do you think that alone is enough?
Bell: I don't think that alone is enough. So I do support the idea of a graduated income tax, but you have to take a look at the entire tax burden of our Illinois citizens --- income, property and sales taxes. and figure out these are the bills we have to pay. These are the obligations we are legally committed to provide. And this is the amount of money we have coming in. Sit down and work together. How are we going to make this work?
Meadows: And do you think any cuts in spending need to be part of this picture?
Bell: That's what I mean when I say everything's on the table. Spending's on the table, as well as revenue sources being on the table.
Meadows: The two people at the center of the state's budget fights were Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. You're a Democrat. If you're elected, will you support Mr. Madigan for speaker?
Bell: I'm not there yet. I've never met Mike Madigan. I've never spoken with him. So I have no personal experience of how he approaches things or how he does things. I don't support term limits for elected office. That's what we have elections for. I think that there are good arguments for, or arguments can be made, for term limits on leadership positions like Speaker of the House and those sorts of things.
Meadows: Well, if you're elected and you're making a decision on a leadership position, and just names aside, what sort of leader do you want?
Bell: I want somebody who's going to talk to me as a representative and listen to my ideas and work with me. I want a leader who does everything to try to pull us together to get work done, to get real work done, the work of state government done, work together in a bipartisan way. That's what I want from a leader.
Meadows: According to the Illinois budget book for the current fiscal year, the state currently has $219 billion in public pension obligations, and only $85 billion in assets. How do you think the state can close the pension gap?
Bell: The pension situation is a mess. It's because of years and years of what our state government has done. There is a plan to have the pension plan 90% funded by 2045. If that's the plan that we're going to stay with, then we need to make a commitment that our representatives are absolutely going to stay with it. It's important to note the reason why we have the pension gap, as you say, is because the state did not fulfill its obligation for many many years. They took pension holidays. They did cost shifting so that the money that was dedicated for the pension went, in fact, to other things. And that's how we ended up with this huge gap that we are currently faced with. The state has to honor their commitments that they have made to the people who have worked for the state for all of these years.
Another point on that --- for state pensioners. I've been working for the state all my life. You (state employees) don't get Social Security, because the state of Illinois opted out of the Social Security system years and years and years ago in lieu of that. What they did was they said, OK, we're going to pay these state pensions. So when people say, oh, these people that are getting these pensions, they're getting a lot of money and we should reduce pensions ---- you need to understand that what you're saying is that those people with only a state pension, it's the equivalent of taking away Social Security, because they may not have anything else, unless they've invested in something. My opponent is advocating for getting these people into 401(k) plans. That is a bad idea. I'm not saying don't have a 401(k). But moving all of theirs into 401(k)'s when they have no Social Security, that's financial suicide for all of these people who have worked so hard.
Meadows: The proposal from your opponent with the 401(k) as an option --- is there any connection with the so-called consideration model that was originally proposed by Senate President Cullerton, that would require state employees to opt in to one or two options with lesser benefits?
Bell: Yes. What you're talking about is privatizing. And when you're talking about those sorts of things you're talking about putting money into plans that are subject to the stock market.
Meadows: So I gather from what you just said that the consideration model is not something you support?
Bell: No. If you have extra things that you want to do, that's fine, but not as a replacement for the pension.
Meadows: OK. Well, what we haven't talked about are really things particular to your district, the 110th. Are there state issues you think are most important to the 110th District and why?
Bell: You hit on two already., the budget, and also pensions. And in addition to that, public education: pre-K through higher education that includes support for apprenticeships, certificate and targeted training programs so that our young people can develop the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to get good jobs right here in the district. We have shortages here in the district of teachers, health care workers, but also skilled trades workers. We need those people, all of us as community members.
The second thing that I've focused a lot on is infrastructure. And by infrastructure, I mean roads and bridges, utilities, waterways and rural broadband. It's not so bad in Mattoon and Charleston. We have high speed Internet in Mattoon and Charleston. But in more rural areas, they don't have high speed internet. I mean, it's very slow and sometimes they can't get it at all. And so, rural broadband, for all, we need that, so that our people can be as competitive as people in more populated areas.
And the third thing that I would say, that is absolutely critical for the 110th, is electing the kind of representative the people of the district actually want and need, so that they can get their needs met. And by that, I mean, somebody who's willing to listen to their constituents, talk with them, and work with their fellow legislators in a bipartisan way --- negotiate. I will be a full-time representative, who wants to work on district issues, who wants to just finally get some work done.