SPRINGFIELD — In his first term as a state representative, Dan Caulkins of Decatur said he plans to focus on constituent concerns about agriculture, education, infrastructure, property tax relief and the Second Amendment.
Caulkins said constituents know him as a small business owner, military veteran, former car and insurance salesman, Decatur city councilman, Eastern Illinois University trustee and more.
He was sworn in to the 101st Illinois House district on Jan. 9, replacing retired state Rep. Bill Mitchell, a Forsyth Republican who was first elected in 1999.
In the traditionally conservative district which includes all or parts of Champaign, DeWitt, Macon, McLean and Piatt counties, Caulkins defeated Democrat Jennifer McMillin by a margin of 33,043 to 14,379 votes.
“Well, it is humbling in a lot of ways to get 70 percent or so of the voters,” Caulkins said. “I've also been very open, up front about who I am and what I stand for.”
Caulkins discussed his philosophy with Capitol News Illinois as he readies for his first legislative session. This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
In 2017, Rep. Mitchell voted for the state’s first complete budget since 2015, ending the historic two-year impasse while passing a 1.2 percentage point income tax increase. Considering your experiences, especially as an EIU trustee, do you think this was the correct decision?
I know Rep. Mitchell had his reasons for it, but it’s not helpful to me to get into that type of discussion. But I would not have voted for it, because it wasn't a balanced budget, even though it was sold as a balanced budget.
The problem is that none of the bad spending habits were addressed in those negotiations. And that continues to be a problem. The state government has a habit of spending more money than they take in. They just continue to tax and spend and borrow and tax and spend, and it's been a vicious cycle for, I don't know, 15-18 years, since we've had a truly balanced budget without gimmicks.
You mentioned bad spending. Do you have any specifics on what you believe the bad spending is?
I think it is any project, any programs that are not basic to the core mission of state government. I can’t sit here and say we shouldn’t be paying for specific programs.
If we have things that we need to do that we can't afford, we set them aside and prioritize them. And if the money becomes available, then we would go back and look at those projects.
It would be very difficult for me to vote for an unbalanced budget. But if I knew that we had a two- or a three-year plan that would get us to a balanced budget, I would look at that as a win.
If we produced a two-year budget, I think the bondholders would appreciate it. I know the citizens would appreciate it. And the business community would have to be enthused by that, that we're finally putting our priorities right and we're going to try to solve this financial mess.
Do you have specific agencies or areas you would target for initial cuts?
I don't go about the budgeting just that way.
I would start with income. It's just like at home — you know how much you're going to make this year, you know how much your family income is going to be, and that number isn't all that flexible.
We need to start on the income side and agree that we're not going to sell the Thompson building for $300 million for the third year. And we're not going to count on some fake savings from pension reform that really never materialized, and they knew it when they did it.
After we agree on income, then you start your budgeting process with fixed costs such as the cost of your employees, insurance, utilities, your pension payment, higher education, health care. All of that money can be put on the books, then it becomes a math problem and then at the end of that, you go, well, how much is left?
If such a two-year plan included more tax revenue, such as a graduated income tax which taxes higher incomes at higher percentages, would you be able to get on board with that?
No. I think it goes back to Illinois having a spending problem, not a revenue problem. If we just passed a graduated income tax to get more money, I think it would be in bad faith because we've done it, we've been there, done that and it didn't work. So why would you give the politicians in Springfield more of your money when they haven't been able to manage the money that we've given them in the past?
Do you think Illinois can achieve a path to financial stability with cuts alone?
I don't know that we can. I'm open to other revenue streams. I'm not open to raising taxes. I just don't see how that works. You know, we need to find ways to get money from people that don't live in Illinois. We don't need to tax the businesses that are here more, we need to go outside and bring in new businesses that will generate revenue.
We don't need to put a casino in Danville or Sparta or wherever and try to entice our residents to gamble more for the revenue. That's not a winning combination.
I think we should put a casino or casino complex in Chicago, under certain conditions. You can imagine a boost to tourism a casino complex might be and the money that's generated from that operation.
But we're not going to be able to tax our way out of this by going after more revenue by raising the income tax and fees on the people that live here. It's counterproductive. The old economic axiom is, if you want a lot less of something, tax it.
You might not have much experience yet with the process, but has anything surprised or disappointed you?
I have to say, I'm encouraged by the freshman class — Democrats and Republicans — the people that I've met in our orientation have all been very focused, very intelligent people that I look forward to getting to know personally and finding things that we can work on together to make Illinois better.
I think that the difference is, what does that mean for each of us? And I hope we get to have those discussions. It's going to be very difficult if we don't, because any thoughtful group that you talk to that's involved in this process will tell you that you that we cannot tax our way out of our problems.
That message hasn't resonated and it needs to. I believe we're at a tipping point that we're going to have to do the right thing if there's going to be an Illinois that we want to live in.
Is there any specific pieces of legislation you immediately plan to sponsor?
I'll sign on as co-sponsor to good legislation – I already signed on to a fair map resolution. But I'm not going to Springfield to get my name on this bill or that bill. Yes, there will be things that I will come up with, but I'm not rushing. Just to dump 10 or 12 bills in the hopper that aren't going to go anywhere doesn't interest me.
Wrapping up, if you serve only one term, is there any single accomplishment that would allow you to call it a successful one?
If we find our way to a balanced budget or on a path to a balanced budget, if we are able to attack the fair (legislative district) map issue, I think it would be a success.