1) City Pensions
Q: Chicago's fire and police pensions are greatly underfunded, and the city is required by the state to make a $550 million payment into the pension funds by the end of 2015. Do you support restructuring the pension systems, inevitably reducing benefits, to put the funds on sound financial footing?
Yes or No: Please Explain: I have been closing monitoring the fate of Senate Bill 1313 and Senate Bill 1, pension reform bills which sought to address the massive pension shortfalls at the state level. One clear lesson from the battle at the state level is that there is nothing to gain from an attempt at reform that will not pass constitutional muster. I support reform that will return the pension system to sustainable funding levels, but I believe any compromise must be bargained in good faith and address constitutional concerns to avoid a protracted legal battle.First and foremost we cannot afford to miss pension payments, which will only deepen our financial hole and increase uncertainty about our fiscal situation.
Q: Chicago's pension systems for municipal workers and laborers already have been restructured, reducing benefits, but the city has yet to identify where it will find the revenue to sufficiently fund those systems. Under what circumstances would you support a property tax increase to raise the needed revenue for the fire and police pensions and/or the municipal workers and laborers pensions?
I do not believe an increase in property taxes is an appropriate way to deal with the pension crisis. I still believe there is room in the city’s budget to provide essential services while increasing efficiency, and a raise in property taxes—which disproportionately effect seniors and low-income homeowners—should not be up for discussion until every other option is exhausted.
2) Chicago Public Schools pensions
Q: Large and growing payments required to keep the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund solvent are squeezing CPS' budget, forcing cuts elsewhere and limiting investment. The Chicago Board of Education has increased property taxes, but it is not enough to keep up with the high annual costs. What measures do you support to ensure a solvent retirement system and to improve the district's finances?
Communities across Chicago—including my own—have felt the trauma of painful cuts to schools. One important consideration is continued reform of the city’s policy regarding TIF funding to ensure that property tax dollars are not deferred from education except as a last resort.State funding for education plays an important role in protecting the operating budget of CPS. Ongoing debate in Springfield about changes to the state education funding formula have created uncertainty about where state dollars will be allocated across the state, and as alderman we need to advocate to protect CPS schools in the state budget and ensure that the education budget is fully funded.Guaranteeing solvency going forward will require timely payment of required pension contributions to prevent the sort of underfunded system that has affected Illinois from the state level on down.
Q: In light of the financial issues discussed above, do you support any or all of the following measures, each of which would require, at a minimum, approval by the Illinois Legislature?
* A statewide expansion of the sales tax base to include more consumer services
Yes or No: No.
I would discuss taxation of a very narrow category of luxury services, but in general oppose service taxes, which I believe are often regressive.
* A tax on non-Chicago residents who work in the city
Yes or No: I would need to study such a proposal. Some form of limited taxation on non-residents who take advantage of City resources and services could be appropriate, but I would not support an ordinance that would harm employers and businesses in the city.
* A tax on electronic financial transactions on Chicago’s trading exchanges, known as the “LaSalle Street tax”
Yes or No: Yes. Please explain your views, if you wish, on any of these three revenue-generating measures.
Do you support hiring more police officers to combat crime and gun violence in Chicago?
Yes or No: Yes.
Please explain: I represent the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, and see firsthand the toxic effect that violent crime has on every aspect of a community. We know that more police will not solve every problem that ails our neighborhoods, but in communities constantly battling crime there is no substitute for adequate police on the streets.
Q: What legislation in Springfield would you support to try to stem the flow of illegal guns into Chicago?
During my term in the General Assembly, I was among the strongest advocates for common-sense gun reform, sponsoring bills to regulate handgun sellers and to prohibit the purchase of unlimited handguns in one month. I disagreed with the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the practice of concealed carry in Illinois, and will continue to support all legislation that will help keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals in my ward and across the city.
5) Elected school board
Q: An advisory referendum on switching Chicago to an elected school board, rather than an appointed board, is expected to be on the ballot in more than 30 wards on Feb. 24. Currently, the mayor appoints all seven board members and the Schools CEO. Do you support a change to an elected school board?
Yes or No: Yes.
Please explain: I support a change to a hybrid school board, consisting of both elected and appointed board members. While I have often and passionately disagreed with Mayor Emanuel on the subject of education, I acknowledge that the mayor’s office has a role to play in guiding the conversation about education in our city. However, families in Chicago deserve a direct means of making their voice heard on education issues. I think a board including elected and appointed members will help ensure an independent school board that reflects a diverse set of viewpoints on education.
6) Tax-increment financing districts
Q: TIFs are the primary economic development tool of the city. In a TIF district, taxes from the growth in property values are set aside for 23 years to be used for public projects and private development. Do you support increasing the annual TIF surplus that the mayor and the City Council have declared in each of the last few years, money that goes to the schools and other city agencies?
Yes or No: Yes.
I sponsored the ordinance seeking a TIF surplus and support returning as many resources as possible to the school system. TIF funding can be an important development tool, and when used wisely and transparency can create effective change in a neighborhood, but I am always concerned with protecting resources for schools and essential services.
Q: What reforms would you propose for the city's TIF program?
TIF funding remains an important piece of redevelopment efforts in the City, and I recognize in my own ward and across Chicago some places where redevelopment dollars serve an important public interest. But any measure that diverts resources from out cash-strapped school system must be subject to a high level of scrutiny.I believe that making more information publicly available regarding TIF funds and the projects they support will help ensure public confidence in the program and ensure that the TIF program properly weighs the funding needs of CPS and other agencies.
7) Neighborhood economic development
Q: What would you do as alderman to boost economic development in your ward, and bring jobs to your community?
I am proud to have worked hand-in-hand with the business community in my ward to improve the economic climate, including my ongoing work to bring a new Mariano’s grocery store to the Galewood neighborhood. One of the most important roles of an alderman is to serve as the day-to-day liaison between businesses and the City, to ensure that government is responsive to the needs of employers and doesn’t hinder local businesses with red tape. I have been proud to work with large employers, small business and community groups to address concerns and bring jobs to the ward.
In my ward, addressing crime is also fundamental to supporting development—crime devastates employment opportunities in our most vulnerable communities, and creates uncertainty for employers even in the strongest neighborhoods in my ward. No plan for development would be complete in my ward without addressing underlying problems of crime and underperforming schools.
8) Size of the Chicago City Council
Q: The City Council has 50 members, but civic groups and other regularly argue for reducing the size of the Council. What should the size of the Council be? Please provide a specific number. And why?
The role of an alderman is that of a highly local advocate—unlike other elected legislators, aldermen serve areas small enough to be intimately familiar with the block-by-block problems and services of their wards. Merely shrinking the City Council without greater reform does nothing to eliminate inefficiencies, and would limit the ability of alderman to serve this very localized role.I think a more productive conversation would focus on how to provide excellent services more cheaply, rather than simply cutting the number of alderman.
9) A Chicago casino
Q: Do you support, in general concept, establishing a gambling casino in Chicago?
Yes or No: Yes.
Please explain: I think an option like a casino that could help fill major revenue holes for the City deserves careful consideration. I have concerns about how a casino within city limits would effect our most vulnerable communities and populations, but if a world-class gaming facility can be brought to the city in a thoughtful manner, it could play an important part in bringing much-needed funding to essential city services.
10) Red light and speed cameras
Q: Does the city have an acceptable number of red light and speed cameras currently, and are they properly employed?
Yes or No: Please explain:
I do believe that red light and speed cameras serve a legitimate purpose in deterring unsafe driving and promoting safety, particularly near schools and busy intersections. However, we can all agree that the process of implementing these cameras should be rigorous and data driven—I support cameras only where they can help reduce risk of accidents and promote safety. For this reason, I support ongoing review of camera placement and more thorough traffic studies for any more proposed cameras. I would not support cameras as a revenue source—enforcing traffic laws with an eye towards revenue instead of accident prevention is both bad budgeting and bad practice with regards to traffic safety.
11) Ward issues
Q: What are the top three issues in your ward — the ones you talk about most on the campaign trail?
1) Jobs and development
2) Reducing and preventing crime
3) Education and strengthening our schools
Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board questionnaire responses
Deborah L. Graham
Office running for: Alderman, 29th Ward
Political/civic background: State Representative, 78th House district (2002-2010)
Occupation: Alderman, 29th Ward
Education: BA Robert Morris University Business Admin
Deborah L. Graham is endorsed by the Sun-Times Editorial Board. Read the endorsement here.