Former Mathematician Daniel Biss Makes Second Bid for Illinois House
Daniel Biss, a Democrat, is running against Hamilton Chang to represent the North Shore's 17th District in the House of Representatives.
Just a few years ago, Daniel Biss was researching algebraic topology and teaching classes at the University of Chicago. Now the Democrat is running his second campaign to represent the North Shore's 17th district in the Illinois House of Representatives, after losing to Republican incumbent Beth Coulson in 2008.
With Coulson stepping down this year (after an unsuccessful primary bid to represent the 10th District in Congress), the Evanston resident and father of two is trying to show voters that he has more to offer than he did the in his first race.
"I've got the additional experience of knocking on hundreds more doors, listening to more people, learning more about state government," Biss said. "I feel much more optimistic than I did two years ago that I'll be able to walk in and get to work immediately."
Part of that experience includes working with Gov. Pat Quinn, who asked Biss to serve as a policy adviser focusing on transparency and ethics after Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached in 2009.
But Biss also says his career as an assistant math professor gives him more than simply ivory tower credentials in his race against Hamilton Chang.
"I wasn't just locked up in an attic somewhere solving math problems," Biss said. "I was also a classroom teacher, and education is a very important issue for our state. It's a deeply important issue for our community, where many people moved here for the schools. It's one-third of our state budget, and I don't think we have a lot of educators in the state body."
As with other candidates, Biss took the time to answer questions on his background and the issues for Patch. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What one thing in your background best qualifies you for this office?
My job before I went into this was being a mathematician and, specifically, solving complex problems, problems that are sophisticated, that have a lot of moving parts, that are not about short-term quick fixes but that require you to have mastery of a complex set of information. Quite frankly, that's exactly what we're facing in state government.
How should Illinois pay its bills and balance its budget?
We need to start over. We need to use a performance-based system of budgeting, or budgeting for results … The problem right now includes a lot of irresponsible appropriations that have been grandfathered in over the years.
Does the state have to consider raising taxes? If so, which taxes and how much? What would you do with the revenue?
There are two reasons why it would be irresponsible to support an income tax increase immediately. No. 1, the economic problem. As long as we're trying to do everything we can to accelerate recovery, I think it's kind of backward to tax people more. No. 2, none of us has any reason to believe that the state will use the money well. We need to clear each of those two hurdles.
There is no plan that anybody has to get us out of our fiscal hole that does not incorporate new revenue; therefore, we need to be open to the idea … In the long term, I support a progressive income tax.
Where would you cut spending in the meantime?
One has to look at the big-ticket items and try to find a way to manage our pension obligations, because that's, obviously, a giant, giant sum of money. We also need to squeeze fraud and waste out of the Medicaid system.
I feel really strongly that we need to restructure the way that state hiring works. We need to reform that and do it in such a way that results in fewer political appointees and fewer highly paid political appointees.
The truth of the matter is that there's going to be a lot of small cuts. We need to undergo the very, very meticulous process of evaluating the appropriations one by one.
What would you favor to create jobs in Illinois?
In the short term, we have to make the tax and regulatory and lending environment as attractive as possible to potential employers. For instance, I support a payroll tax credit for potential employers.
I've put together a small business advisory council of small business owners in my district. They've told me that access to credit is a problem … I think the state needs to use its power—not its legal power—with financial institutions to encourage them to lend to small businesses. One way to do that is to say to banks, which want to do business with the state: if you want to invest in our pension fund, if you want to be making money off of us, you need to be lending to small businesses that have reasonable plans.
In the medium term, the budget needs to get under control. It, unfortunately, affects everything. If I'm a business that wants to relocate to Illinois, but I know that there's a giant hole in the budget, so I think taxes might double, I don't want to come. I don't want to come until I know what kind of taxes I can expect.
The final thing is that we have to be strategic about what sectors of the economy we expect to grow, and I already mentioned high tech, but specifically the clean energy and green sector of the economy we know is an opportunity for real growth. It's a way to expand employment across a lot of different skill sets and education levels.
When you talk about banks lending to businesses that can't get credit, it brings to mind the home mortgage slump, when banks lent to homeowners who couldn't afford their mortgages. Is it fair to draw that analogy?
In many cases, they're overreacting in the opposite direction. For me, there's a little bit of pressure to put them back in the middle…It's not the case that we had an epidemic of irresponsible small business loans, so to stop that problem by not lending to small businesses, is in my opinion throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Is there anything you would add about how to bring new businesses to Illinois and to retain businesses that are here?
The big pieces of the puzzle are making sure that our tax structure attracts businesses here and makes businesses want to stay here. And by the way, to me what's more important is not to have a lot of shiny incentives, but rather to make the tax environment overall stable and fair.
What measures do you endorse to end Illinois' culture of corruption? Would you support campaign disclosure laws?
I support everything. Literally, I support everything. Because the problem is so bad that even if I don't get my preferred measure, I think we just need to try everything that we can get enough votes to pass. I support all the disclosure in the world, more prompt and rapid and complete disclosure.
They passed a bill that for the first time ever places contribution limits on contributions from individuals and political action committees. I support that for sure. However, it has two major problems. No. 1, the limits are too high and No. 2, there's a loophole in the bill, which allows legislative leaders to give unlimited donations to candidates in their caucus.
I think that public financing is the way to go … You can give, what, $2,400 in Washington and $5,000 in Springfield? Somebody who has the ability to bundle together 20, 30 or 40 checks of that size is essentially acting like a really big contributor of that amount. I think even more important is to have a system of public financing, which puts all the candidates on the same equal playing fields.
Do you agree with Hamilton Chang, who supports term limits?
I think the most import term limits by far are term limits for legislative leaders. If you look at a Mike Madigan or a Tom Cross, these people have an enormous amount of power over the rest of the state, and they're not voted on by the whole state, they're voted on by a small portion of people.
Do I think term limits are a panacea? Do I think they're all that important? No. I just feel that we're so much in political trouble in Illinois that I've gotten to the place where I'll support anything that shakes up the culture.