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CANDIDATE Q&A: State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna – Illinois House, District 71

October 25, 2018 GMT

Editor’s note: Sauk Valley Media sent the same questionnaire to state legislative candidates in Illinois House Districts 71, 89 and 90 and Illinois Senate Districts 36 and 45. The candidates’ responses will be posted as part of SVM’s Election Central coverage at saukvalley.com.

State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, is wrapping up her first term in the House. She defeated Mike Smiddy in November 2016, taking 66 percent of the vote in her home county of Carroll and 63 percent in Whiteside County. The 71st District also includes Rock Island and Henry counties.

The Republicans came into the 2016 election needing to pick up only one additional House seat to break the Democrats’ supermajority. McCombie received strong party backing and was immediately thrust into the spotlight in a high-profile race in which more than $3 million was spent. Smiddy, who was seeking his third term, received most of his money from organized labor. 

McCombie, a real estate professional, is the former mayor of Savanna. She also served on the Savanna Council. As a state lawmaker, her committee assignments have included business licensing, business incentives for communities, elementary and secondary education, tourism and the hospitality industry, and transportation. 

McCombie and State Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia, host regular Coffee and Conversation sessions with constituents throughout the Sauk Valley. McCombie lives in Savanna with her husband, Curt Hockman.

1.​​ ​​What does Illinois need to do to fix the pensions problem?

To put our pension debt into perspective, Illinois has $130 billion in total unfunded liability, which means every man, woman, and child in Illinois owes more than $10,000 to the pension system. First and foremost, the legislature must make the full pension payment every year.​​

Under Speaker Madigan and several governors, the state shortchanged us and skipped pension payments, causing billions in additional unfunded liability to accrue. Because of this bad behavior, our pension payment has grown to almost 25 percent of our entire state budget. This crowds out funding for our schools, infrastructure, and support for our most vulnerable.

The Constitution protects pension benefits for people already in the system. In 2011, the enactment of Tier 2 was a reform in the right direction to address some issues. Tier 2 greatly reduced pension costs for new hires; cost of living adjustments for new hires are no longer compounded (COLAs are now equal to the lower of half of CPI or 3 percent), retirement age was raised from 55 to 67, final average salary is now calculated on the final 8 years instead of the final 4 years, and salaries were capped to avoid past spiking problems – the cap in 2017 was $113,644.91 and is indexed to inflation.

We need to continue to enact constitutional pension reforms, like this year’s voluntary buyout plan that will help decrease the unfunded liability. Another idea often discussed is a defined-contribution plan – a 401(k). As much as I like this idea for new state hires, there could be problems with this proposal. The state would have to come up with a very large lump sum to fund those currently or close to collecting their pension and it could be more expensive than the current Tier 2 benefits. It is important to remember that a large majority of public employees do not receive Social Security, which means the employer does not pay that additional 6.2 percent of their salaries. If the legislature agreed to switch new hires to a defined contribution system, the state would have to contribute more than 6 percent toward the employees’ 401(k) account as well as pay their portion of Social Security taxes. This could substantially increase our anticipated Tier 2 pension costs.

Pension reform is a complicated and massive mountain. The reforms mentioned might seem small, but will add up to savings and a decrease in the overall liability. The pension ‘debt,’ is technically unfunded liability, so there is not a payment that can be reamortized at a lower interest rate. Instead, the state needs to look at putting pension funds in higher interest-bearing investments and possibly amending the funding levels from 90 to 100 percent to 80 percent. I am not sure if 80 percent is the magic number, and decreasing the levels might seem like we are just kicking the can down the road, but mandating the levels at 90 percent by 2045 and 100 percent by 2040 has put funded public pensions behind and had an unintended consequence of increasing local property tax levies to meet this unrealistic level.

2.​​ ​​What can be done to address the budget deficit? Do you support an income tax increase?

No, I do not support an income tax increase. Illinois passed a record tax increase in 2017. I voted no, because it hurt the working people of Illinois, and it was attached to a budget that gave taxpayers a higher tax burden without any new avenues to grow our state economy. 

Taxpayers have been footing the bill for poor decision making for too long. I truly believe that people do not mind paying their fair share ... if they are seeing the results of their share. It is unfair to ask taxpayers to pay more without changes in how we manage the state.

First, we need to estimate our revenues as we are constitutionally required. Second, we need to begin the budget discussions when session starts, rather than in May when it is getting close to year end. We can address the budget deficit with growth and a combination of reforms. Illinois has to fundamentally change the way we operate within our agencies by ending or reforming expensive and underperforming programs. Illinois must structurally reform our workers’ compensation and Medicaid systems. Paying our bills on time will save millions of dollars in late payment fees.

The budget process does not have be this hard ... fund education, public safety and our most vulnerable first and we can debate the rest. Illinois cannot afford to lose any more of its population. We can stop the exodus with a more efficient and transparent budget process that will grow trust, confidence, and provide stability to the people of Illinois.

3.​​ ​​The governor’s business turnaround agenda has resulted in gridlock. What must be done to facilitate job growth in Illinois?

The governor’s turnaround agenda was destined for failure from the beginning, because he wanted his agenda items quickly solved and was not working with the majority party. We can all agree that growth is the answer in Illinois, but we also have to concentrate on retention of our current population. I have toured major employers in the area, including schools, hospitals, manufacturers, and small business, and they all have positions available. District 71 notes unemployment rates (Carroll - 4.1 percent, Whiteside - 4.4 percent, Rock Island - 4.8 percent and Henry - 4.6 percent) close to the state’s rate of 4.2 percent, but we should ask some additional questions to help facilitate growth. Why are people not working? Are the businesses marketing their positions effectively to the right people? Does the workforce have the education and/or skill levels to fill the positions? Do we offer a quality of life that families desire?

We need to continue to increase funding for education and vocational programs to better position our state and workforce to attract new businesses. Additional funding to our schools and reforming our unfunded pension liabilities, will give our local leaders the ability to implement property tax reform. Structurally reforming our workers’ compensation and tort liability systems, as well as deregulating unnecessary policies, will give businesses the freedom to expand.

Illinois should focus on successful incentive programs with high success rates and we need to help Illinois-founded companies who have a proven commitment to the people of Illinois instead of the companies that seem willing to leave once they find a better deal in another state.

4.​​ ​​Based on conversations with voters, what are the most important issues in your district?

The people’s distrust of government is at an all-time high. People of all ages and political affiliations believe that Speaker Madigan should retire, and that Chicago hurts our district more than it helps it. They believe in reducing the government’s reach into their lives, on both a state and federal level, and they are demanding less spending and balancing the budget. 

People want to worry less about their children and grandchildren and want them to have a stable and thriving place in Illinois to live and raise their own families. Property taxes are out of control and the majority of the people in the district understand that we must fully fund education to really address that issue. So in short ... less government, less Madigan, less in property taxes, less government spending, balancing the budget, increasing education funding, increasing the quality of life, and increasing overall stability.

5.​​ ​​Where do you stand on redistricting and term limits? Do you have any other ideas for changing the state’s political culture?

I am still at a place where I believe most are serving their districts for the right reasons, but the political climate in Illinois is not good! I am sure other states have the political theatrics that Illinois does, but I know few that do it with more enthusiasm. To grow our state and earn the trust of the residents and the business community, we have to enact both structural and political reforms.

Term limits​​ is a reform that is often discussed, mostly because of the long-term standing of Speaker Madigan. Holding office was never meant to be a long-term career. I do support term limits. I believe installing term limits in Illinois will keep the power with the voters.

I also believe in ​independent redistricting. I ​​have been an active participant in canvassing for signatures and have co-sponsored several bills and supported resolutions to make it happen in Illinois. Some people say that term limits exist every election, but in practice, they do not when voters have gerrymandered maps where politicians pick their constituents instead of constituents voting for their representatives.

If the majority does not want to support term limits or independent redistricting, we could always have ​open primaries.​​ It is unfortunate that we have to put checks and balances in place for legislators to do what is honest and fair, but honestly, the power grab and the industry money that is made every cycle makes these types of reforms impossible to get on the ballot. I will continue to be a persistent voice and strong advocate in Springfield to keep reforms like these a priority.

6.​​ ​​Sky-high property taxes are driving people out of their homes and the state. What can be done to ease the burden?

Growing our state and increasing our rooftops is the best way we can lower our property taxes. People running for office routinely profess how they are going to lower property taxes, but coming from the municipal side of government, I understand that our property taxes are mostly determined by our school districts, our cities, counties, parks, airports, etc.

As stated above, we need to continue to increase funding for education and vocational programs. We also need to restore funding levels for income tax collections, corporate personal property replacement taxes and local government tax funds to our municipalities. I carried a bill both sessions that supported revenues collected by the state on behalf of municipal governments to be automatically appropriated to decrease unnecessary budget stresses.

I am a strong proponent of local control and believe state interference might actually increase regulations, mandates, and user fees. We need to give our local leaders the tools to implement property tax reform.