So far, the four Democrats I interviewed who are running for governor have had one thing in common: They all want Illinois to have a progressive income tax, and none of them would tell me what the rates would be and at what incomes they would kick in.
Then, on Thursday, I interviewed Scott Drury, a Democratic state representative since 2013 from north suburban Highwood.
Drury also is running for governor in the crowded March 2018 Democratic primary, but he is not pushing a new way of taxing Illinoisans more, arguing that lawmakers just passed a budget raising taxes on all taxpayers, individuals and corporations alike.
What’s needed instead is to weed out corruption and make state government accountable, responsible and honest. Indeed, those three words are key in Drury’s campaign, which he calls “Rebuild Illinois.”
Drury, a graduate of the law school at Northwestern University, knows firsthand about corruption in Illinois politics and government. For 7½ years, he was an assistant U.S. attorney working on cases with corruption-busting U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who put former governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich behind bars. Drury also prosecuted corruption in the Melrose Park Police Department.
His conclusion: “We need to put better people into government.”
Unlike the other Democratic candidates I’ve interviewed, Drury is opposed to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, “who has been a disaster,” and to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who doubles as Democratic Party chairman.
In fact, Drury, alone among Democrats, voted “present” in January in the election among House Democrats for speaker, a protest against Madigan’s 32-year reign over the House.
In return, Drury was punished first by not receiving the swag bag other Democrats got for voting for Madigan, then by being removed from his position on the House Criminal Judiciary Committee and the more than $10,000 annual stipend that goes with it. Had he decided to seek re-election to his House seat, Drury would probably would have had to face a Madigan-sponsored opponent in his Democratic House primary next year.
Drury wants to reduce lobbyists’ power to influence lawmakers. One way would be to ban lobbyists’ gifts to House and Senate members.
“Last year (2016), lobbyists spent $100,000 on gifts to senators and representatives,” Drury said. “I would end that. Lobbyists should not be giving gifts to legislators.”
Drury also supports term limits for legislative leaders, so that Illinois would never have another speaker-for-life.
He also said voters deserve real choices among candidates in legislative elections. Because of gerrymandering, the majority of House and Senate districts are skewed purposely to elect either a Democrat or a Republican, something that contributes to low voter turnout.
Redistricting reform requires a constitutional amendment. But when voters have gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures to put such an amendment on the ballot, the measure has been struck down by Democratic judges as unconstitutional.
Drury says that’s why the legislature must put a fair map amendment on the ballot, because in that case the courts could not overrule it.
Before Illinois lawmakers even talk about new taxes, they must confront the state’s growing pension debt, at “almost $200 billion,” Drury said. “That means $8 billion for pensions comes off the top of every Illinois budget before the remaining money can be spent on education, health care and everything else the state funds.
“And yet, even though we now have a budget, which I did not support, it is only technically balanced because we shorted the pension payment by $500 million.”
Every year the percentage of the state budget that must pay for pensions grows; it is now at about 25 percent of the budget, Drury said.
“We can’t continue that,” he said.
Drury doesn’t seek to reduce pensions under the old pre-2011 Tier One formula, because that has been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
“Instead we can offer buyouts of around 70 cents on the dollar,” he said. Drury’s research indicates 25 to 30 percent of state pensioners would take the buyout, thus reducing the state’s unfunded pension liability and “getting more money back into the system” that can be used for other priorities like education.
Drury says the state can save money to reduce the prison population. He believes many inmates don’t need to be behind bars and the state should concentrate and housing violent offenders who must be there to keep the public safe.
“Every prisoner costs the state $40,000 a year, he said. In many cases the money could be better spent on early childhood education, job training and other preventive programs, he said.
Instead of focusing first on a progressive income tax, which couldn’t be implemented until after 2020 or 2022, Drury said he wants to make the current flat tax more equitable by increasing the earned income tax credit, which would ease the burden on lower income taxpayers.
Drury said that while corporate headquarters are coming to Chicago “bringing 200 jobs or so each, they’re not bringing manufacturing plants along with them because of the state’s dysfunction.”
Illinois should be a jobs magnet “because we are the nation’s transportation hub and we have a well-trained workforce. But corporations want to know where we are going to be as a state five, 10 years from now, and we can’t tell them that at this point.”
Although he says Illinois should have some incentives for economic development, he is not a fan of the EDGE (the acronym stands for Economic Development for a Growing Economy) payroll deduction tax credit, the state’s key tool for enticing companies to come to Illinois. It was reauthorized by the General Assembly in the spring and sits on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature.
“EDGE is not being used fairly. It doesn’t do enough to help small business,” Drury said.
Chuck Sweeny: 815-987-1366; firstname.lastname@example.org; @chucksweeny