- Jul 24, 2017
IL. Rep. Elaine Nekritz recently announced she will resign her seat representing the 57th District, which includes a large part of Northbrook. Nekritz was first elected to the House in 2002 and serves as the House Assistant Majority Leader and previously chaired the House Pension and Personnel committee. In her 15 years in the state legislature she has been a leader in pension reform and has also authored legislation to address the state’s finances. “After careful thought, it is time for me to step back and create an opportunity for a new leader who can take on our state’s tremendous problems with a new mindset,” she wrote to party leaders. She recently agreed to be interviewed by the Chamber.
The state recently passed a budget; however pension reform was not included. In the past you have been instrumental in authoring legislation that would have addressed the need to reform the system, so were you disappointed that it was left out? Yes, as everyone knows, a big part of the state’s problem is pension obligation. The pension legislation we worked on several years ago was signed by the Governor and became law, but it never went in to effect because the courts stayed implementation during the lawsuit and later it was ruled unconstitutional. The pension payment will continue to increase which makes it challenging for legislators and the governor to meet other demands. We can make the pension payments but it comes at the expense of current services. The courts basically told us that we are obligated to pay for pensions. We have changed benefits for new hires and at some point those savings will kick in. It’s already been 6 years and probably between 15 – 20% of the current workforce in the teachers retirement system are now covered under the new structure. Long term we will work our way out of it because the new benefit plan is dramatically different.
Are you concerned about the business environment that this new budget creates? At 7%, Illinois will now have the fourth highest corporate tax rate in the country. We put the corporate tax rate back to what it was in 2011, so it’s not something entirely new.Certainly the tax rate is a factor in a business decision, but it’s not necessarily the top factor for most businesses. Obviously, the impasse and chaos in Springfield affects the business climate; what I hear continually is that predictability and stability is most important, and IL state government has been anything but that for years.
In addition to passing a budget, what else needs to occur to give the business community the sense of stability it desires? We have to show that we are reliable and careful stewards of the taxpayer’s money. The only way to change the bad perception that people have of us is to actually balance the budget and pay for the services that we can afford, and show that we can do that consistently.
What would you say is was your biggest legislative accomplishment? Pension reform was definitely my biggest accomplishment — and yet also my biggest failure. Whatever the decision of the Supreme Court, we had to go through the process of passing legislation so that we could get the courts to tell us what would be the Constitutional boundaries. The ruling did give us a roadmap going forward, however. In other areas, I am also proud of my efforts on behalf of high-speed rail service to St. Louis, and juvenile justice reform legislation.
What is your position on the proposed property tax freeze? I voted against every property tax bill that’s come up, but they have either been permanent or four year freezes. Could I support a two year freeze? Probably. I think most agencies might not be happy but could (reluctantly) live with it. I think the permanent solution is going back to being predictable and stable, providing the funding for education that the state should be providing, so there is less pressure on property taxes to fund education.
Do you see a way out of the polarization? There are plenty of state legislatures where Democrats and Republicans don’t socialize and don’t work across the aisle, and here in Illinois we still do. I’ve got good friends on the other side of the aisle — we cross the aisle all the time to work on bills, so the rank and file legislative activity is still fairly cordial, at least in the House.
What is your view on term limits for either legislators and legislative leaders? The Constitutional amendment proposed in the Senate to limit the term of leaders applied to leaders in the House and Senate. However it was not included in the final version. I don’t support term limits for legislators. But I’m open to the idea of term limits for legislative leaders. I question whether you’ll ever see anything like the Mike Madigan experience again because I don’t think that the ability to consolidate power that way exists in the current political environment.
Any positive message about the future on the eve of your departure? I still believe first, that Illinois can dig itself out of its fiscal challenges. It’s going to take a long time. And no one should think that passing a budget gets us to immediate fiscal health. We still have $15 billion of unpaid bills that will take many years to dig out of. But if we have the discipline we can do that. And secondly, I think Illinois has a lot of assets on which to build and we should focus on those rather than always focusing on the negative. We have the most educated workforce of any state in the Midwest, great transportation assets, and a number of outstanding national businesses which other nearby states do not have.