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WCBU is committed to bringing you NPR's special coverage of the 2020 election.The League of Women Voters Greater Peoria and Fondulac District Library hosted a Candidates Forum on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 6 p.m.Click here to read about or listen to the forum. Local Races91st House District:Mark Luft (R)Josh Grys (D)92nd House District:Jehan Gordon-Booth (D)Chad Grimm (L) 46th Senate District:David Koehler (D)Mary Burress (R)

46th Senate District Constituents Face A Choice In November

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State Sen. Dave Koehler, and Republican challenger Mary Burress.

Democratic State Sen. Dave Koehler of Peoria faces a well-funded Republican challenger this year.

Tazewell County Treasurer Mary Burress of Pekin is challenging Koehler, the 14-year incumbent in the 46th Senate District, for the seat that represents parts of Peoria, Tazewell, and Fulton counties.

Both candidates are currently airing ads on local broadcast TV outlets to sell themselves to constituents-- many of whom are voting early this year. But those 30-second ad spots don't allow for more than a surface-level glance at where the candidates stand.

WCBU's Tim Shelley recently talked with both Burress and Koehler to take a closer look at their stances on some of the marquee issues facing the district and the state of Illinois.

Energy

If re-elected, Koehler said his two major legislative priorities would be a comprehensive energy policy and health care.

The Duck Creek Power Station in Canton closed last year, and the E.D. Edwards power plant south of Bartonville is slated to close by the end of 2022 as part of a Clean Air Act lawsuit settlement.

Both plants are coal-fired, and major providers of head-of-household jobs and property tax revenues for local governments. Canton Union District 66 alone lost $800,000 in annual tax revenues from the Duck Creek plant's closure.

"We see the coal plants dying away, just because coal is not economical anymore," said Koehler. "We need to replace it with something. And so I'm quite excited about the the advent of having better batteries to really make both solar and wind energy dispatchable."

Koehler conceded many of the 60 union jobs at the Canton coal plant aren't coming back, but he said much of the tax revenue can be restored by converting the old plants into battery facilities to store the energy generated by wind and solar, as plant owner Vistra Energy has proposed.

"They highlighted Illinois, Texas, and California as where they want to expand by putting solar fields in with battery storage," Koehler said. "And the batteries are what I want to stress, because that is taxed at a much higher rate. It helps to restore that property tax base that otherwise would be lost. We can't leave our rural communities behind."

But in the meantime, Burress said local taxpayers are left picking up the economic costs incurred by the plant closures.

"I am not for the plants to be closed. And putting people out on the street. There's no work for them right now. Don't get me wrong about green energy, solar and wind farms. But the jobs aren't there," Burress said.

Plants in Hennepin, Havana, and Coffeen also closed. Vistra plans to shut down all its Illinois coal-fired power plants by 2027.

Health care

Health care has become a major point of contention in the 46th Senate race, despite state government's limited ability to substantially affect many of the issues currently playing out at the federal level.

Burress recently called for Koehler to pull an ad claiming she wouldn't protect people with pre-existing conditions, citing her own family's health history. Koehler retorted by saying Burress takes campaign money from those who would roll back protections.

At a press conference last week, Burress said she supports pre-existing condition protections, and opposes cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits.

"We have to protect our seniors," she said. "We have to protect our most vulnerable, and I would not cut any of that. I would still be in favor of making sure our most vulnerable are covered."

For his part, Koehler said his main health care concern is ensuring it remains accessible and affordable.

"I've long championed health care in terms of having a state policy that really helps out middle class families. You know, such as making sure insurance companies can't use pre-existing conditions as a reason to deny you for health care coverage," he said.

Koehler said he also supports the telehealth expansion that's taken root during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that particularly benefits people in the more rural parts of the district, who previously had to travel to Peoria or even Chicago for more specialized care.

Progressive income tax amendment

Koehler voted with other Senate Democrats to place the progressive income tax amendment championed by Gov. JB Pritzker on the November ballot. Currently, the state assesses a flat rate on income, regardless of how much money an individual or household makes. Pritzker wants to introduce multiple brackets, with higher earners paying a higher percentage of their total income.

Koehler said while he supported putting the tax question on the ballot, it's not a focal point of his campaign.

"I did vote for it. But people have to make up their own mind on it. I think that for middle class families, it's something that's going to benefit them. But again, that's not an issue that I'm trying to campaign on," he said. "I'm trying to say I put it on the ballot so that the public could decide that, because that's how you change the constitution in the state of Illinois."

Burress said she strongly opposes the tax amendment.

"I think it gives legislators an open checkbook. They can raise taxes whenever they want. They say it'll be over $250,000, people making that amount of money. I disagree," Burress said. "I think that those people that are making that kind of money will leave (and) they'll take their businesses with them. It is one more way for them to tax their way out of debt."

Closing statements

Burress said she would reject a state lawmaker pension and vote against legislative pay raises, if elected. If voters in the 46th District send her to Springfield, the Republican said getting the state's fiscal house in order and fighting corruption would be her top priorities.

"The state of Illinois needs more honesty, integrity, and learn to live within their means instead of constantly taxing their way out of debt. So those are those are just some of the main things I'm running on," she said. "Other than, you know, honestly, the corruption has got to stop. Every time you turn around, there's some other different kind of corruption that is happening here in Illinois. We've got to stop it."

As a state senator, Burress said she would listen to the 46th District's constituents, rather than Chicago and special interests.

For his part, Koehler said constituent service is one of the areas where his Peoria and Pekin offices already excel. And he said his status as Senate Assistant Majority Leader and chair of the Downstate Senate Democratic Caucus  offers his constituents more protection from undue Chicago influence than a Republican lawmaker would.

"People have this mistaken image that if you're a Democrat, you just kind of answer to Chicago. No. The best protection that the central Illinois has against the Chicago political machine is having downstate Democrats that are willing to stand up and say no, we draw the line. And we've done that and we'll continue to do that," he said.

The election is Nov. 3.

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