Illinois Review recently interviewed John Bambenek, a conservative Republican candidate running for the 52nd State Senate district which stretches from Champaign to Danville.
Where did you grow up and what do you do for a living?
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, in Oak Grove. I moved to the University of Illinois for college and that’s where I met my wife and never left. I’ve been in Champaign for seventeen years. Professionally I do electronic fraud prevention, so essentially I deal with Russian hackers trying to steal your credit card and bank account information.
How did you decide to run for State Senate?
I’ve been active in politics for a while, most actively since I’ve had children and seen the direction of the state in terms of its ever-increasing tax burden, debt burden, and the amount of jobs and opportunities leaving the state. I’m much more conscious as to what kind of future my children will have. With this status quo, they won’t have the kind of opportunities I’ve had, and as a father that’s not really acceptable to me. The way to change that is to change the people who are there.
Speaking of economic opportunities, I’m thinking of the number of graduates coming out from the Urbana-Champaign campus in your district. How would having you as a State Senator affect the students from that campus?
I think it would provide them the opportunities to, when they graduate, find jobs in Illinois. Right now, an overwhelming majority of U of I graduates end up in other states with their first jobs. And increasingly we see recent graduates, a higher percentage than at least in recent history, unable to find their first job after graduation. Sometimes it takes upwards of two or three years to get their first opportunity after getting a degree. All of the time the student loans are pending repayment. So first and foremost is economic opportunity.
But the state currently owes the University of Illinois about $400 million. The only reason that that is so--the only reason--is because legislators have spent more money than we’ve had. The state obviously can’t print money, so what they’ve done is delay bills. [It’s telling agencies]: “Well, the state’s out of money this fiscal year. We’re going to have to pay you in next fiscal year--and you can expect a five-month delay.”
That’s just a basic failure in budgeting, by spending more money than we have. That pressure has increased tuition fees, it’s created various problems with University employment, and I think just getting that under control will alleviate a large amount of financial pressure on the University of Illinois. At least they can be confident that the number they are budgeted is actually the number they’re going to get. And nobody has that confidence today.
On your website you talk about reducing the corruption and dysfunction in Springfield. This definitely sounds like one of the issues you care about. What are some of the other issues you want to see changed?
Obviously, in part, corruption is a fiscal issue. There are various estimates of how much money has been lost due to corruption, whether it was Blagojevich, George Ryan, or corruption that is still ongoing. There is certainly an indication that a lot of state business, how the state contracts services and how people are paid, tends to be more on who you know, so obviously that’s a big issue. The financial issues are what everybody’s focusing on right now. Between the state budget, state debt, and other bills, that feeds into the general jobs climate. Businesses see our pension debt, the continuing growth of Medicaid, the past two bills, and the income tax hike that was passed in the middle of the night last year. They’re wondering what’s next in terms of how they’re going to be hit to pay those bills, based on bad decisions made over the past few years and decades. That lack of economic certainty is the biggest prohibitor of job growth in Illinois. Businesses say, “Well, I can grow jobs here in Indiana,“ because in Indiana they know what the next five years is going to hold for the most part, as much as you can know. With Illinois, every year’s a struggle in terms of “What’s next?”
We need to create a stable economic climate in Illinois so businesses can feel free to invest here, and know what they’re getting into.
Do you think that what just happened in Wisconsin with Scott Walker has broader implications in Illinois as well?
I certainly think so. Obviously, he approached some of the problems they were facing in a particular way and some of the excesses there, and I think the first major indication you’re going to see is that Wisconsin now appears to be in play for the presidential race. A lot of resources were spent in Wisconsin and essentially the election results on election night in 2010 when Scott Walker won were about the same, percentage-wise, as the recall. So nothing really moved in terms of where the voter disposition was in Wisconsin. But I think those are the questions that will be sorted out at the ballot box, in terms of which economic and policy vision the voters in Illinois, the Midwest at large, and the voters nationally want. That’s what this November election is going to come down to.
I just saw one of your recent tweets where you’re talking about 43% of local Illinois governments ignoring Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. This is another example of a choice between visions: is this acceptable or do we need more transparency, not just a promise, but it actually being delivered on. From that tweet, what could be a change on that specific issue?
I think you mentioned it: transparency’s one thing, but the question is accountability, or probably more accurately, enforceability. The FOIA law on the books says the government must disclose acts. Well, what if they don’t? There’s no real penalties or teeth in the law. I’ll give you another example. There’s the Open Meetings Act, where governing bodies need to do their deliberations, policy decisions, and lawmaking in public. That law has criminal sanctions, that if your city council passes a budget, but does it privately and doesn’t let anyone know about it, that’s actually a criminal act and someone can go to jail. Now on the flipside of that, there hasn’t been a prosecution of that since the 70’s, as I understand it, and there’ve certainly been Open Meetings Act violations since then. The question comes as a question of enforceability. To make that be disclosed, you can go to court, spend thousands in legal fees, tell the judge to issue a court order, and that court order comes with sanctions if they don’t comply with the court order. But probably what we need to get to is where these officials who are denying these requests are held personally accountable for frivolous denials. I mean, ignoring FOIA requests is flagrant, and the fact that we have it at that level shows that we really need to put some teeth in this—some enforceability—and that the FOIA reform of two years ago didn’t go far enough.
In the idea of holding someone personally responsible, what are actions that your opponent Mike Frerichs has taken that you think he should be held personally accountable for?
Ultimately, it’s just policy decisions that voters can weigh in on at the ballot box. He was certainly a supporter of the massive income tax increase last year, and he is by-and-large a supporter of almost every tax increase that has ever come before the General Assembly, including the gross receipts tax. A couple of months ago he had a press conference, again calling for a Constitutional Amendment to make it easier to hike taxes. His policy ideas with the budget problems tend to overemphasize tax increases versus spending reductions. So I certainly think that that will be a big issue: his vote on Workers’ Compensation Reform, or I should say his lack of vote on comprehensive workers’ comp. There was a bill in front of the Senate. Essentially, if you get a workers’ comp, you have to prove your injury was actually related to your job. Whereas now, you just have to basically be injured. You can hurt your back doing handstands at a weekend BBQ and essentially you can get a comp claim now. Well, that’s obviously a problem.
He voted present when that bill came to the floor. Well, when you talk to businesses, particularly manufacturers, on why they don’t locate in Illinois, it’s always workers’ compensation costs. So this is a very big, competitive disadvantage because of our system, where you can get a worker’s comp claim and pay, but don’t actually have to prove that your injury had anything to do with your job. Well, common sense would dictate that that’s a problem. He voted present on that, and that I would hold as a failure of leadership. I mean, take a stand on the big issues. Yes or no, we can have a discussion. Voting present is just hiding.
A number of issues like that are related to jobs and taxes, and there’ll be those kinds of policy differentiations.
You’re talking about these competing visions, between taxing and spending more, or making actual cuts. You’re going door-to-door and talking with voters. As you bring up your vision of policy changes, what kind of feedback are you getting?
Well, it’s generally very positive right now. Voters are generally just angry. Usually the first question I get is, “Is this your first time running, or are you there now?” They hear I’m the challenger and then they’re supportive. They’re just angry at everybody because, in fairness, both parties have a share in the blame and that’s how the state’s where it is. We need new leadership that comes with a fresh perspective to say, “No, really, we can’t continue on the path we’re going down.” So with that particular question, sometimes we don’t even get to a policy discussion. They’re like, “You’re not there now? OK, I’ll support you.” But people are aggravated about taxes, and they get aggravated about jobs. They’re looking for somebody that will bring order to the state’s finances, get our debt paid down and paid off, and then cut taxes and do things to bring jobs back to the district and to the state.
Would you say there’s any experience you’ve had in running your own business that will play into how you will work things as a state senator?
I think there’s two things. What anybody’s who’s started a business kind of understands is that there needs to be up-front investment and up-front costs. One of my staff members, for instance, is starting a fitness business and he looked at the states where he could locate it. He ultimately decided on Texas because he could either do it in Illinois or in Texas. If he did it in Texas, he would save $35,000 a year in costs just associated with being in Illinois compared to Texas. Every three years he can start a new studio and create the according level of jobs. Looking at that, that’s a competitive disadvantage with other states. When you start a business you kind of understand you’re competing with other people and you have to have something that they don’t. The reality is, in the modern economic climate we find ourselves in, we are competing with all fifty states, and for that matter, every country in the world for the most part, for jobs and for these businesses. So we can either create a competitive package of all the resources we have, or we can not do that and watch other states win out on these companies, where we lose. And the reality is, Illinois has a lot of natural advantages, which is keeping things from being worse than what they could be. We’re an essential transportation hub for the country; we have a very vibrant transportation industry. We have good soil; we have great agriculture here. We can capitalize on those things, fix our bad policy decisions, and bring jobs back very, very quickly.
What kind of timeframe—saying you were able to address some of these policy changes—what kind of timeframe are you looking at?
Well, to be honest, if I was elected, on day one I’m going to start introducing legislation to accomplish that. There’s really no sense in waiting on some of these issues. We need to fix our budget issues now. We need to fix our backlogged bills now. We need to reduce the tax burden on our working families and small businesses now. As far as I’m concerned, if I was elected, November 6 is Election Day, November 7 I’ll rest, November 8 I’ll start getting to work on crafting those legislative packages to move the ball forward. Now I’m not going to get anything passed on Inauguration Day in January, but introducing legislation is the first step to beginning those discussions, beginning those debates, and trying to move the ball forward.
If folks are interested on hearing more on where you stand on the issues, where can they go?
My website is johnbambenek.com and for any issues that aren’t on the website, just contact us through the contact form.