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Open seat in 105th House District attracts broad field of GOP candidates

The 105th state house district includes portions of nine counties in Illinois.
Illinois State Board of Elections
The 105th House District includes portions of nine counties in Illinois.

It's rare to have a truly open seat election in the Illinois General Assembly and one in a freshly drawn district. It means there is an opportunity. And so the 105th House District race attracted a lot of candidates.

The 105th is big. And rural. It has parts of nine counties in central Illinois stretching from Lasalle to Pontiac to Bloomington-Normal and west to the Illinois River and East Peoria. It's so red no Democrat even bothered to file for the primary. Of Republicans, though, there are four. And you can't be a successful Republican candidate in such a district without certain values: pro-Second Amendment, right to life, anti-Pritzker, and pro-business.

Charlie Schlenker
Kyle Ham

Mike Kirkton of Gridley, Kyle Ham of Bloomington, Dennis Tipsword of Metamora, and Don Rients of Benson check all those boxes. At first glance they are a lot a like. They all think the state budget is too big, there is a lot of waste in how the state spends taxpayer dollars, and taxes are too high. Their differences are a matter of background and nuance.

Kyle Ham has the most experience in political life and how state government operates. He was chief of staff for former State Treasurer Dan Rutherford and has been in and out of Springfield in various roles for 20 years. Ham said to fix the state structural deficit of several billion dollars a year will require a huge effort from lawmakers who have avoided unpleasant choices for decades.

"You have to sit down and say, what's the long-term strategy? This isn't going to happen in one year, two years, or 10 years. This is probably a 30-year plan that has to be implemented. And then no matter who's in charge governments or you know, Republicans or Democrats have to stick to that plan that we're going to fund certain things or not fun certain things," said Ham.

Ham said fixing the structural deficit requires lawmakers to look at every program in the state to consider whether it is giving people value. One example comes from his days in the State Treasurer's office.

"We would buy toilet paper in weekly increments for 300 people. Well, when we sat down and said, you know, if we buy the stuff in bulk, we can actually save money. So we would buy a bulk and buy it in a year quantity. And we were saving several thousand dollars. And that's just one trivial minor thing. But that's taxpayer dollars," said Ham.

Ham was previously director of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council and said the state should change the way it tries to attract business. He said the amount the state offered Rivian to bring the electric auto plant to Normal is tiny compared to what Georgia offered Rivian for a plant there. It's not just about incentives though. Ham said it's about telling the story of the state.

"And that's our people. Our workforce is second to none. Rivian has had to hire 5,000 people out there, and they're seeing the work ethic of our people and the value they bring being centrally located logistically with interstate systems and rail and being able to barge and the assets of our airports to be able to get cargo in and out. We're central to the grid. Illinois has some of the most affordable electric rates for a business to come here," said Ham.

Meanwhile, Don Rients is a former correctional officer and former congressional candidate. He ran in 2015 and lost to Darin LaHood in a special election when Aaron Schock resigned. Rients said he wants a more efficient government to enable lower tax rates. He says one example is from his days as a guard at Pontiac prison.

"They built a low water fountain in the middle of the prison, a multi-tier water fountain like you'd see in Italy. And so they built that water fountain. And when they went to turn the water on, and went up an inch," said Rients.

Don Rients
Charlie Schlenker
Don Rients

Rients said the state ended up filling it in with dirt and making it a flower bed. He said there was no attempt to claw back the cost of the failed fountain from the contractor that installed it. Rients called it more than waste; it was corruption. Rients said his big dream is to do away with the income tax and fund government through sales taxes.

"I would love to see a value added tax only system and the entire United States you know, you know, I'd like to see that. You know, because I think taxes, income taxes for one, invade the person's home. You know, and you have to do it every year and you need lawyers and you can hopefully consent a lot simplify it, but you're getting within a person's personal business," said Rients.

Rients said when people buy things they would pay tax. If you don't have as much, you don't buy as much and he said those who buy luxurious goods pay more.

The traditional argument against sales taxes or even a true value added tax, which increases taxes on goods at each point in multiple stages of production, is that it tends to be regressive. Minority and lower income people proportionally spend more of their incomes on necessities than do the wealthy. Rients said that depends on what's taxed.

"Food right now is that 1%. Value added taxes might vary. I mean, you have to draw the whole thing out that might vary. If you're buying a luxury boat, is that going to be 1%? Or is that gonna be 10%? It can vary depending on the products you buy and on the value added tax," said Rients.

Rients acknowledged accomplishing that dream would be hugely complicated and a very tall order indeed.

The third candidate in the 105th House Republican primary is a former military man. Mike Kirkton is a retired army infantry lieutenant colonel. He lives in Gridley and is on the Livingston County Board. Kirkton said the person who wins the primary has 'gotta be real. Republicans are in a superminority in the legislature. Kirkton said that will likely limit whoever wins to work on constituent issues rather than big-picture policy. Yet, if he gets the opportunity, Kirkton said a focus group of district residents tells him certain issues are big.

"Tops on the list (is) motor fuel tax right off the bat. For a farmer, it's not only the motor fuel tax, but it's also all the inputs that come that go with farming, especially right now during planting season," said Kirkton.

Kirkton said 72% of the district relies on agriculture, so the gas tax is having real-world effects on crop production.

Mike Kirkton
Charlie Schlenker
Mike Kirkton

"You have farmers right now saying, hey, I was going to corn in this in this field, but because of the cost of inputs or the lack thereof of inputs, I'm gonna have to plant beans again," said Kirkton.

Money raised by the gas tax goes to fix roads and bridges. There are a lot of roads that need work in the state. But Kirkton said the motor fuel tax is tied to inflation. And that hurts a lot.

"When we see the rising inflation, for a gallon of gas right now is about 38 to 42 cents motor fuel tax. In addition, the prediction with the rise of inflation is that by this summer, you'll be paying an additional 66 cents a gallon," said Kirkton.

When lawmakers tied the gas tax to inflation in 2019 it was to fix a different set of problems. Better fuel efficiency meant people were using less gasoline and diesel, but doing the same damage to the roads. A previously flat per gallon gas tax had been unchanged a long time and so the buying power had diminished ... because of that same inflation. For Kirkton, though it was, pardon the phrase, a bridge too far. He liked a proposal from GOP state Sen. Sally Turner of Lincoln to cap the motor fuel tax at 8%.

Kirkton said another of his issues is worker's comp insurance. He said Illinois businesses pay four times the rate Texas businesses do. Kirkton said he's not sure how to fix that difference.

Law enforcement is the big issue for the fourth candidate in the race. That's natural enough. Dennis Tipsword is the chief deputy for the Woodford County Sheriff's Department.

Tipsword said the SAFE-T act passed last year is the single worst law for law enforcement in his career. He said changing it will be an uphill battle because the Republicans are a minority in the House. But Tipsword said he believes there are a number of Democrats who are moderate on public safety and that his voice and experience in law enforcement could help prevent future unintended consequences.

Consequences such as the ones he sees coming in January from the elimination of cash bail. Starting in January Tipsword said people accused of Class B or Class C misdemeanors can't be taken to jail. He asked what happens if you have a covered back porch and someone wants to take up residence there.

"As they are not a threat to you as long as they haven't, you know, made this more than just a simple trespassing case. All we can do is give them basically a ticket with a court date on it. I have no ability to remove this person from your back porch," said Tipsword.

Charlie Schlenker
Dennis Tipsword

Supporters of ending cash bail have said it will address the disproportionate affects it has on minority and lower income people. Using Tipsword's example, someone currently arrested for trespassing who can't afford to bond out ends up costing government a lot of money to house and feed until trial, even though they are a nonviolent offender.

"It's probably not a good outcome but is a better outcome to leave this person on your back porch?" said Tipsword.

Tipsword said cash bail does serve a purpose. It assures the court the suspect has an incentive to come back to court. He said there has to be a way for lawmakers to compromise, but neither side is talking to the other. And the lack of that conversation is what Tipsword said he wants to address.

On tax issues, Tipsword said he particularly wants to lower the corporate tax rate. Right now he said it discourages business growth in Illinois.

"Right now we're at 9.5%. You look up and down the list and there are a number of states that are in the twos threes, fours and fives. There are very few that are in the eights and nines that we're in," said Tipsword.

He said the federal corporate tax rate is 21%. Adding the state share, Tipsword said, puts Illinois businesses at 30%. He'd like to go as low as possible and the rest, he said, is a negotiation.

In the end Dennis Tipsword, Mike Kirkton, Don Rients, and Kyle Ham say they want the same thing — to be a voice for the people, serve the people, help people, to speak for people and speak up for people.

On June 28 voters will pick one of those four in the 105th district Republican primary. Early voting begins Thursday.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.