Candidates hoping to represent the newly redrawn 6th District in Congress next year agreed Wednesday that residents of the south and west suburbs deserve a better return on their tax dollars.
More than 100 guests listened as seven candidates answered questions for an hour at a Countryside forum presented by the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
Democratic Reps. Sean Casten and Marie Newman and Republicans Niki Conforti, Rob Cruz, Gary Grasso, Scott Kaspar and Keith Pekau participated in the forum. The June 28 primary also includes Republican candidate Catherine O’Shea and Democratic candidate Charles Hughes, who organizers said did not respond to invitations.
Pekau, mayor of Orland Park, said a federal formula to distribute American Rescue Plan money unfairly delivered more dollars per person to Chicago than others communities.
“The suburbs were shortchanged,” Pekau said. “Those numbers showed Congress felt the people in the city of Chicago were worth five times more than the average person in the state of Illinois. That’s unacceptable. If we’re going to have programs like that, let’s allocate it per capita.”
Casten, the incumbent 6th District representative from Downers Grove, said elected members of Congress know best to prioritize targeted federal spending, formerly known as earmarks.
“We have the power of the purse,” Casten said. “These are the things we know our community needs.”
A bigger problem, Casten said, is that Illinois is an economic engine that generates tax dollars that are donated to states with fewer businesses because of disproportionate representation in the Senate.
“Right now Illinois is subsidizing people living in Kentucky,” Casten said. “We need to get to per capita funding.”
Newman, of La Grange, represents the 3rd District but is running in the 6th. Redistricting shifted Oak Lawn, Orland Park, Palos Township and other areas into the new 6th from the old 3rd. Newman in 2020 defeated longtime Rep. Dan Lipinski of Western Springs, who attended Wednesday’s forum.
“I think the best way to do it is to get input from the community,” Newman said of allocation decisions. “We build criteria with all our community partners, including businesses, nonprofits, community-based organizations and residents.”
Grasso, mayor of Burr Ridge, addressed differences between worthwhile investments and wasteful spending.
“The job of a congressperson is to bring money back to the district,” Grasso said. “There is collaboration between municipalities, state government, county government and the federal government.”
Kaspar, an attorney from Orland Park, said he wanted to cut wasteful spending.
“Part of my goal of wanting to go to Congress is to actually reduce the size of our federal government,” Kaspar said. “It’s bloated beyond belief.”
Cruz, a former school board member from Oak Lawn, said what mattered most was the integrity of people who decided how to spend funds.
“Special projects are never going to stop because communities need them,” Cruz said. “Who is stewarding the money, and who is placing it where it needs to go?”
Conforti, an energy consultant from Glen Ellyn, criticized decision-makers.
“Today in Washington things have gotten off track,” Conforti said. “There’s not a lot of common sense out there.”
Candidates fielded questions about taxes, national security, energy, the environment, the pandemic, abortion, crime and other topics.
Cruz, who was removed from the Oak Lawn High School District 229 Board in January after he sued Gov. J.B. Pritzker over mask mandates, said he remained opposed to mandates.
“I think it’s a personal decision,” Cruz said.
Grasso said elected representatives should avoid distractions over hot-button culture war topics.
“It’s time for serious leaders to handle serious issues,” Grasso said.
Casten in 2018 defeated Republican former Rep. Peter Roskam, who sponsored the 2017 tax bill that drastically cut rates for wealthy individuals and corporations. The bill represented a disastrous policy that dramatically increased the budget deficit and rewarded foreign profiteers, Casten said.
“We took $1.7 trillion and sent 30% of it overseas,” Casten said. “It was horrible.”
Congress should invest more resources so the Internal Revenue Service can catch tax cheats, he said.
Newman said Congress should do more to help small-business owners. The House passed bills she sponsored to increase access to capital, she said.
“My first bill was to reduce taxes for small businesses,” she said. “We increased the business deduction by 5%.”
Pekau criticized the tax policies of Democrats.
“There will be continued efforts time and time again to raise your taxes,” he said.
Kaspar said he would support a Supreme Court ruling that would overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to ban abortions.
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“I believe that’s actually the right solution,” Kaspar said.
Conforti said illegal immigration was a serious problem.
“We have a crisis on the border,” she said.
Cruz said sensible immigration policy would help address inflation and the labor shortage.
“This country has always had immigrants come in and do those low-paying jobs,” he said. “We need to make it easier for them to come in and fill those jobs.”
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.