NOTE TO READERS: This article is part of an ongoing series about McHenry County’s new representation in Springfield and Washington after the 2012 election and post-census redistricting.
FOX LAKE – Newly elected Republican state Rep. Barbara Wheeler’s office was easy to miss on a snowy Monday.
She had just received the occupancy permit for her small, downtown district office, and the office sign would be coming later in the week.
Most of her stuff was packed in cardboard boxes stacked on top of furniture handed down from the office of former Republican Rep. Sid Mathias, who lost his re-election bid in a separate race.
“Wouldn’t you be mad if you walked into a state representative’s office that was lush, plush and paid for by the taxpayers’ dollars?” Wheeler said.
Wheeler, a former McHenry County Board member who ran unopposed for the new 64th House District, said she hopes to bring similar austerity – spending less than you make and being frugal with what you do spend – to a General Assembly drowning in red ink.
Under post-census redistricting, the 64th district shifted north, covering eastern McHenry and northwestern Lake counties. It starts in Crystal Lake – which is split under the new maps into three House districts – and generally follows the Chain O’ Lakes north to the Wisconsin border. It includes all or parts of Bull Valley, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake, Johnsburg, Lake Villa and Lindenhurst. Wheeler’s district and the 63rd District represented by Democratic Rep. Jack Franks are paired with the 32nd Senate District represented by Republican Sen. Pam Althoff.
Wheeler’s largest concern, she said, is the state’s ballooning unfunded liability for its five pension systems, which stands at $96 billion – or $200 billion depending on how you count – and is growing by an estimated $17 million a day. That debt, not counting the $9 billion the state owes in unpaid bills, has her worried that the temporary income-tax increase set to start expiring in 2015 won’t be temporary after all.
“I’m very concerned it will become permanent,” said Wheeler, who said she would vote against making the increase permanent.
Democratic lawmakers in the 2011 lame-duck session, without a single Republican vote, raised the state income tax 67 percent on individuals and 46 percent on businesses. Almost all of the revenues from the tax, which lawmakers sold as an effort to pay down the bill backlog, instead have been swallowed by the state’s pension obligations for teachers, state employees, college teachers, judges and state lawmakers.
Lawmakers need to tackle pension reform immediately and not wait until the last days of the spring session at the end of May to try to hammer out a closed-door deal, Wheeler said. She said there are enough working parts from various attempts to fix the system that could result in a plan to return the state to solvency.
“But based on historical action, I think we’ll be waiting until May. Do we have to? No. That would be criminal,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said a number of her committee assignments, such as transportation and elementary and secondary education, will help her address other priorities.
A former seventh-grade teacher at Wauconda Middle School, Wheeler said she wants to fight to end state unfunded mandates to local governments. And having grown up in Lake County and served on the McHenry County Board, she said she wants to steer more state money to local road improvements, such as Route 31 and the decades-old plan to extend Route 53.
“For years, McHenry and Lake counties send their tax dollars to the state and we see little back,” Wheeler said.
She has filed a consumer protection bill making it illegal to put a surcharge on credit card transactions, as well as a bill capping salaries of appointees to boards and commissions at $20,000 and making them ineligible for health benefits.
While the Democratic Party now holds supermajorities in both houses, Wheeler said she anticipates that she and other Republicans will be able to get some things done, and that both sides can work together.
“Am I being naive? Maybe I am. But I’d rather lean toward naive rather than being cynical the first month out,” Wheeler said.
How to contact 64th House District Rep. Barbara Wheeler
District office: 37 E. Grand Ave., Suite 101, Fox Lake, IL 60020; 847-973-0064
Springfield office: 214-N Stratton Office Building, Springfield, IL 62706; 217-782-1664