If Illinois’ longstanding budget crisis is ever resolved state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) will likely have a significant role in crafting a solution and finding new revenue for the state.
As the new state legislative session gets underway, powerful Speaker of the House Michael Madigan has chosen Zalewski to be the new chairman of the Revenue Committee of the state House of Representatives.
Zalewski assumes the chairmanship of the Revenue Committee at a time when the state has been without a budget for nearly two years and faces a nearly $11 billion backlog of unpaid bills.
“I came to Springfield more than eight years ago to help responsibly take on Illinois’ toughest challenges, and this chairmanship will put me in prime position to do just that,” Zalewski said in a press release announcing his appointment. “I appreciate Speaker Madigan’s faith in selecting me for this critical role. I will work hard to preserve the committee’s tradition of carefully reviewing all proposals to change our tax and fee structure and put taxpayers first in our decisions.”
Zalewski has served on the Revenue Committee since he came to the House in 2009 and previously was the vice chairman. The past chairman of the committee, John Bradley, a Democrat from southern Illinois, was voted out of office in November in a hotly contested race. Bradley was one of several House Democrats targeted last year by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the state Republican Party. The Republicans picked up four House seats, but the Democrats remain in firm control of the House, albeit now without a veto proof majority.
Zalewski has been an active and energetic member of the state legislature since he was elected in 2008 and has introduced legislation on a wide range of issues, including requiring tougher sentences for those convicted of crimes involving guns and regulating fantasy sports betting.
Madigan’s appointment of Zalewski reflects the high regard Madigan has for Zalewski, said Steve Brown, spokesman for Madigan.
“On behalf of the Speaker, I would just say that it reflects the Speaker’s view that the representative has the ability the deal with complex issues,” Brown told the Landmark. “That’s what he’s shown during his legislative career. That certainly is a committee that confronts a lot of complex issues, so he believes he has the intellect and the skills to do a very good job.”
Almost all observers believe that the ultimate resolution of Illinois’ budget problems will require some tax increases.
But in an interview with the Landmark, Zalewski said he is more interested in changing the structure of the tax code in Illinois.
“I don’t think the conversation should be about raising taxes as much as changing the tax code to make it fairer for everybody,” he said. “And I know that is something a lot of people in my position say, but I think in this instance a lot of people feel the tax code doesn’t work for them and that goes for individuals and for small businesses, and that probably goes for some large corporations, too.”
He would like to review exemptions in the tax code, especially as they affect corporations and added that his committee will hear from several tax experts soon.
He believes a budget deal can eventually be reached.
“I’m going to remain optimistic that we can eventually get this figured out,” Zalewski said.
Currently a compromise deal is being negotiated by the leaders of the state Senate. The outlines of that proposal released thus far would include some tax increases as well as some pro-business changes that Rauner has been demanding as part of a budget deal.
Zalewski said he looks forward to being part of finding a solution for Illinois’ budget woes and is not concerned that being part of potential tax increases could damage his political career.
“I really enjoy being a lawmaker, and I really enjoy handling big issues like this, and I think that if we can figure this out I will have done something substantive in my career, so I’m not worried about the repercussions,” he said. “What the last two years have done, if it’s done anything, it will have shown that governing isn’t easy and that the ultimate product that we produce that turns the state around will be something that everyone can hang their hat on and truly bipartisan and good policy.”
Zalewski also serves as the vice chairman of the House Healthcare Licenses Committee, which he previously chaired. This session he will also serve on the Higher Education Committee.
Because of the absence of a budget, public colleges and universities are not currently receiving funding from the state, and in the past few years significant cutbacks in state funding have occurred.
“I’ve decided to delve into higher ed a little bit this year,” Zalewski said. “I think we are doing unmitigated damage to our higher-ed infrastructure in Illinois and that’s particularly troubling to me because higher ed is something that Illinois has traditionally done very well.”