SIU needs to cut tuition costs to be a viable institution into the future, said House District 115 candidate Zach Meyer of Du Quoin at a recent forum hosted by the League of Women Voters in Carbondale.
"What we need to do is lower tuition by $2,000," Meyer said. "Right now, the University of Kentucky, University of Indiana, University of Iowa, and SEMO all have lower tuition. SIU needs to be run like a business, and wherever they have a lower tuition rate, it makes it hard to compete."
Four out of the five Republican candidates competing for the 115th district Republican nomination in the March 17 primary election came to the forum to discuss regional economic development, ethics reform and the future of SIU, among other topics.
Johnnie Ray Smith II, of Ashley, called SIU a "tremendous engine" for the entire region, said he thinks Springfield needs to fund the university at an entirely different level in order to start making headway toward a recovery.
"If you look at SIU, they're still operating at funding levels from the '90s, and it's naive to expect a true modern-day performance," said Smith, who is a lieutenant at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center and owner of Spartanville Fueling Station in Waltonville.
"My proposal would be to bring SIU's funding up to at least 2015 levels."
Smith said that after that new funding model is in place, more can be done to address inefficiencies that exist within the university bureaucracy -- a notion seconded by John R. Howard, a grain and livestock farmer from Texico who said administrative cuts must be considered as a means toward righting the ship.
Meanwhile, Clifford Lindemann of Bluford suggested the university's solutions might come from the very students it has educated.
"The biggest thing we can do with SIU is harness the brain power that's already there and come up with solutions to the problems we have," said Lindemann, who is the retired longtime manager at Continental Tire in Mt. Vernon and current chairman of the Jefferson County Board.
"Get the kids to stay here. I think that's our biggest issue. We have to somehow use SIU itself to come up with ideas and solutions for the school."
Paul Jacobs, a local optometrist from Pomona and owner of Von Jakob Vineyard, did not attend the forum; his campaign said he had a scheduling conflict.
The seat is wide open this election as the Republican incumbent, Terri Bryant, is running unopposed for the 58th Senate District seat being vacated by Paul Schimpf.
The 115th district is geographically broad, covering parts of Perry, Jackson, Union and Washington counties, and all of Jefferson County. No Democrat filed to run in the primary, but the party could appoint a candidate to run in the November general election.
The candidates spoke directly to the issue of small business in the 115th District and how to make the area more alluring to potential investors. Lindemann bemoaned the changing nature of commerce.
"We need to go and buy stuff at the small businesses in our communities rather than going to Amazon and buying it," he said. "It may be easier, but a lot of the tax money you spend at Amazon goes to Chicago or somewhere else. It doesn't stay in your community."
Meyer, discussing his experience running a small business, said increases in the minimum wage set to take effect in the coming years will be devastating to small businesses.
"When the minimum wage reaches $15 an hour, my Tropical Sno will be paying over $6,000 more a season in salaries," Meyer said. "That is an unsustainable increase that small businesses can't afford."
Smith said among his proposals is one to allow small businesses to take tax deductions they would normally use at the end of the year out of their state sales tax. providing much-needed cash flow earlier in the year.
"It's very difficult, being a business owner, to operate in Illinois," he said.
Smith also commended the possibilities offered by small business incubators, specifically citing the one in Carbondale.
"We need more nurturing centers," he said.
Howard agreed the question of minimum wage needs top be revisited.
"Fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage works in Chicago, but that doesn't really correlate down here," he said. "Our cost of living is lower."
All four candidates in attendance expressed concerns about the need for ethics reform in Springfield -- particularly when it comes to the pipeline that turns many ex-lawmakers into statehouse lobbyists.
"Everything wraps around ethics reform," Lindemann said. "Legislators leaving office and immediately going into being a lobbyist. That turnaround has to stop. We need people who do what they say they're going to do, they're going to be transparent and honest with the people. Right now you don't see a lot of honesty in our state."
Meyer, the race's youngest candidate, agreed with Lindemann's assessment and pointed to a further need for "more transparency about financials" from candidates for state offices. Smith suggested recent political scandals in Springfield make this an ideal time to usher in changes.
"This is the best time to actually change the state," Smith said. "How are people profiting from these jobs? These jobs don't pay a whole lot of money. If that's what your interest is, to gain a lot of money, that needs to be stopped right now."
Howard said reforms are needed, because the perception of graft in Illinois politics creates an environment in which it is difficult to get other work done.
"I think that's the number one problem, because it's created such a stigma that there are good people up there, but there are enough bad ones that it gives them all a bad name," Howard said. "There's a disconnect between a lot of the people and the people that are elected to serve."
The candidates spoke to issues of crime and drug abuse in southern Illinois communities, citing the need to combat opioid abuse and keep local police departments adequately funded.
Smith insisted that front-line cops need to receive proper financial support, and also called for more public education about the perils of opioid abuse. He also said police can use money to invest in worthwhile technology.
"When you're dealing with crime, it has to do with technology," Smith said. "The more technically advanced we can get law enforcement, the better off we are at solving crimes and identifying suspects."
Howard agreed that police need more funding, but he also noted that local governments have challenging budgetary limitations. Community involvement is important to stalling the spread of crime and drugs, Howard said.
"I hate to ever say anything about more government regulation, but it's going to have to be checked somehow to make sure people aren't bilking the system and that those prescriptions are given where they need to be given and not abused," Howard said.
Lindemann decried the state's 2017 decision to end cash bail for nonviolent offenders, saying it keeps people who would commit crimes on the streets,
"When you arrest someone for a crime and they can get out of jail without posting bail, that's a problem," Lindemann said. "Number one, we lose income as a county. Number two, they're back out on the street in a matter of hours. They get back on the street, they commit another crime."
Meyer, who as a student worked for a time in the Perry County state's attorney's office, pushed back against Lindemann's statement, saying the law allows people to earn credit toward their bail for each day in jail, but doesn't let them off the hook entirely.
"For you to just get out of jail without paying anything, you're going to have to sit in jail for a very long time," Meyer said. He added that a joint drug task force between Perry and Washington counties and an expanded drug court could serve as a model for other jurisdictions in the state.
State budget cuts
On what specific items they would cut from the state budget, the candidates were vague, but they still offered glimpses into how they might steer Illinois' finances.
"I've been asked that question a lot," Howard replied, "and I'd love to give you an answer, but I think you're going to have to go over every line of that budget to know where you can cut." He said the state needed "to stop running people out of this state with over-taxation" in order to start relieving the pressure.
Lindemann cited a need to identify waste and fraud, and also to put the state's money where it can truly make a difference.
"We have to get our infrastructure to a place where people will want to come in and build here," Lindemann said. "If your infrastructure is in place -- and I'm talking about your roads and bridges, your drains, your water-sewer systems -- you get those in line, which the capital bill is supposed to be addressing, you'll get people who will want to move in."
Meyer suggested cutting administrative costs, and also eliminating unnecessary duplication of efforts.
"For example, right now, the state police purchase their own squad cars, but they have to pay a management fee to CMS to oversee the squad cars," Meyer said. "That endless paperwork, raising administrative costs and wasteful spending."
Meyer also pointed to a need to combine and consolidate some bodies of local government.
Smith said a lot of the places where the state could save big money is hidden in the details of the budget.
"We have to start with essential services," he said. "Going from the top to the bottom. A lot of that funding is in place.
"The easy way is to go after the taxpayer's wallet, but there's a lot of different ways we can generate revenue."