There are no easy solutions when it comes to shoring up Illinois’ $130 billion pension debt or approving a balanced spending plan for the state.
Don DeWitte, R-St. Charles – who was appointed to finish the 33rd Senate District term of Sen. Karen McConnaughay, who officially stepped down earlier this month – sat down with the Northwest Herald Editorial Board and his opponent – attorney and activist Nancy Zettler, D-Algonquin – to share their thoughts Wednesday.
With Illinois residents paying the second-highest property taxes in the country, the candidates were asked how they would help reduce the property tax burden.
Both gave their thoughts on government consolidation as a potential remedy, but as recent political battles in McHenry Township and Lake in the Hills have indicated, the removal of government entities is not always an easy solution.
DeWitte said consolidation will require leadership with an appreciation of what can be accomplished, such as taxpayer savings, through consolidation.
“I think if given the right incentives and given the right reasons and taxpayer anger, which seems to be increasing on property tax issues, I think you’ll see [consolidation] more and more becoming the norm rather than the exception, with entities looking to pull together and consolidate and save taxpayers’ money,” DeWitte said.
Zettler said there are instances where government entities can be consolidated, but it has to be done carefully.
“And it has to be done with an impact study, I believe, especially on bigger governmental entities like townships, to show if anything is going to be saved as far as tax dollars, and what services will be impacted and how that will impact people in the townships,” Zettler said.
The General Assembly’s hands have been tied when trying to achieve pension reform since a 2015 Illinois Supreme Court ruling found a pension reform law unconstitutional.
DeWitte said although the Supreme Court halted most of the Legislature’s ability to approve dramatic pension program reforms, there still are some opportunities to nibble around the edges of the debt.
One idea DeWitte proposed is to review how pension plans are managed.
“I’d like to review the oversight and management of all those state-funded pension plans to see if there may be some way to consolidate management rather than having six or eight or 10 different management firms all collecting fees with a team of accountants and lawyers who are all being paid to oversee that business,” DeWitte said.
Zettler said she would like to see the debt reamortized over a longer period of time. However, she said she never would back a plan to put state-obligated pension debt on the backs of local school districts.
“All that’s going to do is explode property taxes or make us make some major cuts in curriculum and the services that we can provide for kids,” Zettler said.
As far as other solutions, DeWitte said, he would be in support of across-the-board spending cuts by as much as 10 percent.
“I think every department in the state needs to take a haircut,” he said.
Zettler said she would like to see school funding reform so the state fulfills a constitutional mandate to fund 51 percent of education costs for districts.
“In this area, we pay 70 [percent] to 75 percent of the school costs out of our property taxes,” Zettler said. “If we were actually to redo funding so that it’s done as the constitution of the state mandates, that would reduce property taxes a great deal.”