Race for House District 118: Q&A with Phelps, Kasiar on higher education

Jason Kasiar, left, and Rep. Brandon Phelps. (Provided photos)

Jason Kasiar, left, and Rep. Brandon Phelps. (Provided photos)

By Marnie Leonard

As voter attention is focused on the dramatic presidential election playing out on the national stage, candidates in state legislative elections fight to stay in the spotlight.

More than $4 million has been invested in four local House and Senate races. With the state budget’s fate remaining uncertain for the upcoming year, the future of Illinois will be decided by the legislators who take office in January. 

The state economic climate has negatively impacted SIU in more ways than one. 

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Due in part to budget cuts resulting from a lack of state funding, SIU lost 246 full and part-time faculty members from fall 2006 to fall 2015, according to university data. 

The data shows for the fall 2016 semester, enrollment hit its lowest point since 1964, which interim Chancellor Brad Colwell in September partially attributed to the state budget crisis. 

Academic and non-academic programs face cuts and university data displays graduate assistantships have been reduced by 265 positions from spring 2016 to fall 2016.

With SIU facing these adverse conditions, the Daily Egyptian asked legislative candidates in four local districts to answer questions regarding higher education policy in Illinois. 

Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, is challenged by Democrat Jason Kasiar of Eldorado in House District 118. Kasiar, who owns Beck’s Drugs in Eldorado, is the seven-term representative’s first opponent since 2008.

These are the questions: 

  1. What changes, if any, need to be made within your political party with regard to higher education and why?
  2. After graduating high school, students leave Illinois at a higher rate than almost any other state in the country. From your perspective, what’s the biggest challenge for college students in Illinois and how do we correct this?
  3. Why are you a better choice than your opponent?

Rep. Brandon Phelps (Democratic Party)

1. This is going to have to be a joint effort to get things done. All the dirty politics going on, all these negative ads, that’s not helping the environment at all. Higher education facilities are economic engines for our community. We have got to do a better job of planning more in advance for these budgets. These stopgaps help but they aren’t long term solutions. With all the tax money we send to the federal government, we don’t get a lot of good return on that for our higher education facilities. It’s troubling. We need more federal help.

We have to talk about revenue too. We could look at another gaming expansion, and I’d look at anything right now to find some revenue streams. I have proposed doing away with Central Management Services. When the Department of Natural Resources goes to buy a new lawnmower, CMS buys it from the dealer and then DNR buys it again from CMS. It’s a waste of taxpayer money. Let the departments do what CMS does and that would save almost $2 billion that we could put into our state coffers for higher education. We just have to think out of the box and find other ways to bring in revenue. One thing I will not do is tax retirement income. I will never go down that way. We’re an aging population here in southern Illinois, and I’m just not going to do that.

2. We used to pride ourselves on our great teachers, and not too long ago they changed the pension system so all the new teachers coming into the state cannot retire until they’re 68 years old. So we’re going to lose a lot of good students that want to be teachers here because they’re not going to want to come to a state where they can’t retire until they’re 68. We’re not doing a very good job promoting and recruiting good teachers, and I’m just using that as an example. And like it or not, coal is king here. You have to use what the good lord gave you, and he gave us a great abundance of natural resources. We have to find ways to get scrubbers to burn our own coal here in Illinois in our own power plants because if you do away with coal, not very many people are going to be able to afford their utility bills. Forty-six percent of the energy in Illinois is from coal, 46 percent is from nuclear and only eight percent comes from solar and wind. I am a proponent of solar and wind but it just doesn’t produce the same output that coal and nuclear does. We have to find better tax credits for our small businesses too so they can employ more people. When we do more tax incentives, we can bring more manufacturing firms and things like that. That will produce more jobs.

3. I have experience and passion. Every endorsement has gone to me, and I’m not bragging but that’s hard work. You have to go out and work hard to get endorsements and I’ve done that. I’ve raised almost every bit of money myself. You can’t expect people to do things for you, and there is no one who works harder than me. My constituents know that. And I can reach across the aisle, I have Republican friends, independent friends, Green Party friends. And my seniority — seniority means everything in the General Assembly. You are able to get better money for your district, better committees, a lot of things are based on seniority. I’m proud of my seniority.

Jason Kasiar (Republican Party)

1. I sit as the president of the Eldorado School Board and every year when we sit down to create our budget for the year we have an idea, based upon our students, the amount of money we’re going to get from the state. You try to create a budget based upon that particular number. Now, we’ve been smart enough to know that, even in our transportation budget, we’re probably not going to receive one or two of those payments. Therefore, it could be upwards of $100,000 just in our district in Eldorado that we may not get from the state. What we have to do is account for that money not being there, so we play it a little bit on the conservative side. We’ve been very fortunate in doing that and we haven’t had to lay off a teacher yet. From all the rest of the districts around here, I think we’re one of the few that haven’t had to lay off a teacher, and we also have one of the lowest property tax rates in southern Illinois. What I think needs to needs to be done, and I think the incumbents now are talking about how they got educated fully funded. What they don’t tell you is that they’re bringing it back up to 2010 levels. As you and I both know, probably a gallon of milk in 2010 was less than it is in 2016. So if we’re reimbursing schools through the state on 2010 rates and we were below that, even before they brought education up to 100 percent funded, that’s a problem. I think the other problem that we have is there are some districts that refuse state aid that have a tax base that’s unbelievable.

Therefore they’re able to spend $20,000 to $25,000 per student based upon state aid and their tax base in their district. Here in Eldorado we are able to spend about $6,000 per student. None of us would be where we are today if it weren’t for our education and for our teachers. If there’s one thing, if we want to produce hardworking people that will pay their taxes, will do their jobs, we better educate them. We better find a way to educate them. When we’re taking money out of education to pay for things that keep you elected to a seat, then I find that shameful. They move money around like it’s no big deal and then they don’t pay it back. They’re talking about a road bill right now where they can’t pull any money out of the road bill for anything else. Well, let’s take that a step further.

Let’s not take any money out of the education fund for other projects. If you line item something to be paid based upon your budget ideas, then it should be paid. That’s why a $7 billion dollar out-of-balance budget wouldn’t work, because we’re overspent by $7 billion, well, what are you going to do? You’re going to start taking money from other places and putting it where you think you need it. That’s why term limits, I believe, are a good thing. If you’re not worried about staying in that seat forever and being elected every time you do something, then you’re a little less willing to do favors that may jeopardize programs within your district or within the state. Education, the road fund, healthcare — we can go on and on. I think we need to put the money where it’s allotted, quit borrowing money back and forth, and fully fund our schools at a 2016 level, not levels that were from six years ago.

We can’t fund our schools like that and we have to quit playing politics with people’s lives. People are here, they’re trying to do everything they can, and all the incumbents are doing is just lining their pockets and they don’t seem to care a whole lot about the people they represent. It’s like it’s a good old boys club or a fraternity or sorority or whatever you want to call it. They’ve got money coming in from everywhere. My opponent, the incumbent Phelps, has almost $1 million in his campaign fund — $1 million for a $70,000 a year job. Do you think there’s a little more to it than just being a politician and representing your district? I think so. The majority of that money came from Chicago and Washington, D.C. The problem is that people will listen to what these politicians have to say and not check the facts. People need to be more educated on the political process and what’s really going on and these politicians need to fund things the way they say they are going to fund things.

2. It’s jobs. We don’t have anything to offer. I’m very fortunate, being a business owner and owning my own pharmacy. I know not everyone has that opportunity and I see people leaving here right and left. My brother just moved to Tennessee from Charleston, Ill., and he’s a dentist. My gosh, the tax savings he’s got. My twin sister lives in Dallas and she wouldn’t come back to Illinois because of the mess that it’s in. We’ve got to entice these people to stay, we’ve got to create jobs that they want to stay in. And we’re not. We want people to be dependent so much on the government that they can be controlled by the government because they’ll come in and say, ‘Well, if you don’t vote this way, then we’re going to take your stuff away from you’ or they threaten you. Even on a local level in Eldorado, we’ve got city officials going around intimidating people, trying to get them to vote a certain way, and you know what? We reach out to the voters and we say, ‘Hey, it’s your choice. You don’t need to be told who you’re going to vote for.’

We’ve got to be able to entice people to stay, we’ve got to be able to create good-paying jobs, and not all the good-paying jobs need to be in Chicago or Peoria. It’s laughable what our legislators get paid. It’s a slap in our face. Then after 4 or 6 years they’re drawing a full pension. That’s another slap in our face. That’s why I signed a thing that says I won’t take a legislative pension. There are enough jobs right now in Illinois that people are going to retire with pensions that we can’t pay for because the Legislature hasn’t funded things properly. It’s time for them to pull up their pants and be big boys and girls and do what’s right instead of doing what will get them elected.

We’ve got to find a way to create jobs for people to stay, so if there’s tax incentives for people that want to stay, if there’s tax incentives for businesses who want to create jobs to hire those people, then so be it. That person is still going to be here paying taxes. Even if they’re paying a percentage of the taxes that they normally would pay, it’s still better than nothing at all. And we’ve got to have that kind of mindset to get through this mess we’re in, if we can even get through it.

3. First of all, I’m a business owner. I’ve run an independent pharmacy for the past 20 years. You see a lot more Walgreens and Walmarts than big mom and pop shops out there, but I’ve fought the fight against the big guys. I can deal with anybody, and I’ve created jobs. My opponent has not created one job while he’s been in office, or ever. He’s a career politician and I’m a business owner. I will not vote on anything I haven’t read. It may take a group of 10 of us to sit down and get through it but I will do it. Sometimes Mr. Phelps doesn’t even show up for a vote. Last but not least, I will not vote for Mike Madigan as Speaker of the House. Ultimately, that’s where the problem lies. He controlled Brandon by giving him money. Do you think that money comes with strings? I’m going to guess it does.

Staff writer Marnie Leonard can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @marsuzleo.

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