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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

Western Illinois Legislative Candidates on Higher Education

The 93rd Illinois House District includes one public university and two community colleges.  Incumbent Representative Norine Hammond (R-Macomb) believes she's served higher education well and she's running for a fourth term. Her Democratic opponent John Curtis believes the state should be doing a better job of supporting higher education and thinks he can help reverse course on the trend of declining state aid.

Some highlights of their conversations with Tri States Public Radio:

Republican State Representative Norine Hammond:

Credit Rich Egger
Norine Hammond served as an aide to Republican State Representative Rich Myers before being appointed to replace Myers after he passed away late in 2010. Hammond is campaigning for a fourth term. This is the first election in which she’s faced an opponent.

On the future of higher education in Illinois

“I'm hopeful. I think that sometimes crisis brings about good change. I'm hopeful that we can put all this behind us because it’s not been healthy and it is a huge deterrent to our universities being able to carry out their mission. And that is to educate students. They should have some sense of reality of what are the dollars going to be.  They’ve been able to adjust and God bless them for it. Basically, our state support versus income funds has flip-flopped over the last 15 years. Illinois is the fifth highest state in the nation for tuition and fees. When you think about that, that’s just pretty incredible. I think that we need to get the proper funding to our universities so they can give the student the best bang for their buck.

On the 15 year drop in higher education funding in Illinois

“It is surprising to know that higher education funding overall has increased between 2002 and 2015.  But you and I will both remember during the Blagojevich administration higher education funding was decimated, absolutely decimated.  And we are trying to crawl back up to a level, if we would ever get there, of where we were. I think at that time we were at about a $2.5 billion higher education budget. In FY’15 we were at about a $1.8 billion.  It was a significant decrease.  However, we have increased our funding to higher education about 6%.  Unfortunately, 100% of that increase has gone to pay pensions. So that is a huge, huge component of our higher education funding because our pension payment, like every other aspect of state government, it is a tremendous burden on the funding.”

On whether the state needs to increase its revenues to pay for higher education

“I don’t there’s any question that there is going to have to be some kind of an increase in revenue.  Where that revenue is going to be coming from, targeted – it’s really hard to say at this point. As a budget group (the bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers who came up with the stop-gap spending plan), when we first started, we were looking at the year budget in its totality.  As time went on, it became quite obvious that we needed to do something to keep the state running, albeit only until January 2.  But at that time in our discussions there were discussions on all types of revenue, some of which I thought, ‘Who ever thought of this?’ But it’s all on the table, I would say, right now. In addition to that, there is discussion of perhaps bonding part of our debt. We anticipate our debt will be at about $10 billion and so there are discussions about bonding part of that because we are often times paying at a rate of about 12% interest. We are being told by the Office of Budget and Management we could get that down to somewhere perhaps around 3.85%-4.00% depending upon when and how much we would sell in bonding. So that’s all part of the discussion as well. I will say for my part, personally, when I talk to a lot of folks, they’re not absolutely, adamantly adverse to it but they absolutely demand accountability.  So they want to know if and when there is an increase in revenue – be it taxes, whatever it would be – they want a plan. They want to know that if they’re going to pay these additional tax dollars that indeed it is going to go to the areas that have been agreed upon.”

The full conversation with John Curtis

Democratic candidate John Curtis:

Credit Rich Egger
John Curtis is a small-scale farmer who runs the Barefoot Gardens CSA. Curtis earned a Master’s degree from Western and teaches at the university in the English as a Second Language program. This is his first run for state representative.

On the future of higher education in Illinois

“I like to think that we're going to let common sense take over again and start funding higher education at a rate that's appropriate.  And that's at a much higher and more regular rate than what it's being funded right now. “

On paying for higher education 

“We (shouldn't) cut taxes when we're just barely paying the bills. That was one mistake we made a year-and-a-half ago. And of course, I'm just like anybody else, I'd love to see a lower tax bill.  But it's just irresponsible when you're not paying for the services that the people of the state need.  I think the long-term answer is a progressive tax, what's been called the Illinois Fair Tax Movement. Clearly somebody who's working minimum wage shouldn't be paying the same tax rate as the governor, who's bringing in $60 million a year. I frankly am surprised that we still have a flat tax in Illinois when our neighbors -- Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri -- they all have progressive tax rates and our national taxes are progressive. It's just common sense. And I think it's just the right thing to do.”

On making higher education affordable

“We want to do that to improve our state. We want to do that because we believe in the American dream. And we do that because it's the best way for someone who's living in poverty or is lower middle class to move up the economic ladder.  The cuts to the MAP grant funding that took place last year, the fact that our MAP grant funding for low income students is not funded with this stop gap measure, is just absolutely unacceptable. Not only does it hurt our university but it just makes a college education out of reach for a lot of our graduating seniors and that's just not right. That's absolutely unacceptable and I want to make sure that everybody can go to college if they're ready and if they're good students.”

On the Board of Trustees system

“I think that we could look at some different ways of bringing in trustees who are overseeing what's going on at our state universities.  I think that we need possibly to have some more people who have more direct experience with higher education.  And I'd like to see some more people with real vision about where higher education should go over the next 25 years.”

Rich is TSPR's News Director.