State Sen. Jason Barickman was visiting constituents in the Iroquois County area April 8.
Barickman’s district encompasses a six-county area, which takes two hours to drive from end to the other. He said he worked the U.S. 24 corridor for this trip.
He spent time April 8 in Forrest in Livingston County, at Prairie Central schools, and then Milford, where he talked to students and teachers about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. He topped off the day meeting with the Iroquois County Republicans.
“Just spending a little bit of time seeing how the schools are operating,” he said. “You know there’s really big divide. In some of our more rural communities I think there has been a strong embracing of ‘we’re going to find ways to keep the school open’, ‘we’re going to navigate the issues as best we can and help ensure parents with the confidence that their kids are in a safe environment’, and that attitude has led to a different dynamic in the school, but by in large, kids in classrooms.
“It’s different than what you see in some of the larger communities. Champaign, Bloomington, largely went remote, which created a whole host of other issues.”
He said teachers have many more roles than just teaching, including keeping an eye on students who might not be getting enough to eat or who might be having difficulties at home.
“It was good for me to go to the schools today and hear from teachers about how they are navigating and from students,” he said. “Every kid has their own view of school but I think kids really yearn for some of the normalcy. They want sports. They want activities. They want graduation ceremonies. To get some of that feedback today was good. It’s helped. It’s hard to represent people if you are not able to see them and talk to them.”
While schools have had challenges to overcome, he said they are really doing just that.
“These teachers are doing something we really never thought possible: some kids in a room. Some kids behind a screen. Teaching all of that at the same time, simultaneously. That’s a gift that some people can do that.
“As you might suspect, younger teachers who more well versed in technology have been easier to embrace some of the tools available and utilize them. I saw one of the classroom setups today. It’s amazing. The class had kids at home looking through their screen at the classroom, so they could see students in the classroom. They could raise hands. They could interact. All the kids both in the room and on the screen could see the teacher and hear the teacher. So they’ve figured it out.”
He said rather than dwelling on negatives and challenges of COVID-19 “I found it nice to see some of the positives that are happening.”
Barickman said that how governments reacted to COVID-19 “are really being scrutinized. “I question Gov. (JB) Pritzker’s desire to go it alone,” he said. “At every juncture he has made decisions unilaterally through the stroke of a pen. Some question the constitutionality of those orders. But the bottom line is this, if any governmental leader wants the public to buy in to their solutions, there’s a way to collaborate and integrate ideas from a broad-based constituency that will result in a greater buy-in. For whatever reason Gov. Pritzker has not embraced that. The result is the lawmakers, the legislative branch itself, has largely been set aside while the governor operates on autopilot. He’s made approaching 100 executive orders since COVID. Those orders have touched on every aspect of people’s lives: deciding essential businesses versus non-essential, changing the marriage procedures, changing how notary publics conduct themselves, the schools and sports, and on and on.
“I think the legislature should have and should be still today much more engaged in that process than we have been,” he said. “Some people like the rules and some people don’t like the rules but if the legislature has chance to have a voice and a vote, people thinks that’s how democracy works. But it’s not what’s happened. Still today, the governor has this phased approach.”
He said some constituents have said the phases are “hyper government intrusion in their life.” People feel that they are based on arbitrary notions rather than specific data and outcomes.
“It wouldn’t be the same if the governor were Republican. The Democrats would have hearings and we’d scrutinize these orders and the outcome would be better for the public: recognized the diversity of the state, the geographic diversity. None of that’s recognized by a single person who lives in Chicago, who has surrounded himself primarily with people who come from that community. While they may have had the best of intentions they don’t have some of the same perspective as we do elsewhere. That’s why the legislature is made up of people from around the state.”
The last year for the General Assembly, he said, has been living on Zoom, with back to back meetings. “That has continued. It’s trying to make the best of that and on the other hand it’s wildly dysfunctional. It’s just not the way the process is designed to work. The public largely gets shut out of the process. The media has been critical of being shut out of the process. If you respect the role the public has and the media has and you say both of those groups feel like they are shut out, I think that screams for not working.”
He said some in-person sessions have been started, but they are still dysfunctional. “The Capitol has been generally prohibiting the public and the media from being inside. So even while lawmakers have been doing some in person committees and some in person floor votes, we’re still doing it through some type of remote system. So the witnesses that appear in committees don’t physically attend, they attend by Zoom. That means all the committee members, while we are in the room, we have to use headphones and speak into a computer microphone with a video in front of us even to ask a question of someone who might be sitting three feet away from us.”
Barickman said the legislature is back to some in person sessions next week. “I think we will be tackling some enormous issues. The state is going through a redistricting process. I’ve been an advocate of removing that power from the legislature and putting it in an independent commission. That’s an open debate. There is an effort to rewrite the state’s energy laws that may have an impact on how many renewable energy sources exist, wind and solar. It may have an impact on the nuclear plants that exist in the state. The governor is a proponent to Path to 100, which is an extreme shift in energy policy that even some in his own party are concerned could have too detrimental of an impact on the state’s energy system. But that is an open debate.
“There’s not been a lot of chatter about it, though there should, a few months ago there was a growing movement to rewrite the state’s ethics laws. This was in light of the criminal investigation that really took out Speaker (Mike) Madigan. That effort seems to be stalled although it could restart itself; long overdue. I supposed it’s worth noting that for the first time in my life Mike Madigan is no longer a state representative. That’s news in and of itself. It does mean there’s a lot of new leaders. They are all trying to get their bearings and understand how to make things work in the way they want. A lot of new people in leadership positions. So people are just finding their way.”
Barickman has new roles as well. “Our caucus has asked me to serve in some capacities that include: I’m the spokesman for our redistricting efforts. I’m the spokesman for the executive committee which is considered the committee that sees all the high profile kind of issues of the day. That’ requires a lot of studying and preparation to be ready for those issues. I was also asked to serve as the floor leader, which means that I’m the Republican voice for the caucus in floor debate, which is both an exciting opportunity, but it’s one carries great responsibility because all of you in the media and public are listening as to what the Republican view may be on any particular issue. There’s a preparedness that’s required for all the bills that come up and there’s thousands of them. It’s fun. It creates lots of homework.”
Barickman has worked with local entrepreneurs, some of which are unique. He worked recently with the mead industry. “This is raw constituent service at its best,” he said. “A constituent (in the Dwight area) calls me and says ‘I’m trying to grow my business. My business is producing mead. It’s this honey-based alcoholic drink. I come to find out the laws don’t allow me to grow my business because the laws from the 1920s and ‘30s post prohibition restrict the ability of someone to produce and distribute mead in the manner he’s trying to do, which is sell it to the local restaurant or bar. So we are changing the law, not just for him, but as a result of his efforts. What it means is he will be able to grow his business. I’m very optimistic we are going to be able to change the law.
“That is how the system is supposed to work. People call you up and say they have a problem. What’s the common sense answer here and let’s go make it happen. I’ve received a lot of good support from my Democratic colleagues on this. You set aside the dysfunction that exists on big issues and you say here’s an example of how government can work. They identified a problem, they worked on a solution, they worked together on it and hopefully as a result it’s good for the people who care about this.
“To me, government should not be holding down the economy and entrepreneurs. We should be supportive of that and this gives us an opportunity to put that mindset to work.”
Illinois has some reopening happening, but the effects of COVID are very evident. “COVID itself and the governmental orders that followed had a dramatic impact on people’s lives. I think many businesses went out of businesses and will never recover. Many people lost their job and they may never go back to wherever it was that they worked. They are sorting out life through that. As the economy starts to reopen and maybe growth, I think it’s going to give people confidence. We need that for entrepreneurs and investors.”
He said Illinois has a long way to go, not just because of COVID, but in general. “I think a lot of investors and entrepreneurs look at Illinois as a challenging state with or without COVID. We on the government side have an opportunity to make a major impact on whether people look at Illinois as a destination for growing jobs and moving families and seeking meaningful employment. We’re losing on that right now. We’re losing to other states that are seeing huge economic growth. I want to see that here. I want people to look at Illinois.” That dynamic can be changed, he said, by changes in law.
He sees a light at the end of the tunnel. “While we may never go completely back to a pre-COVID world maybe we can get into more of a new normal that has lots of similarity to what the world was like before COVID. I think it would be healthy for everyone’s mental health.”
Barckman said he and his staff tries to be very responsive to people’s needs. Those who need to get in touch with him can call him or email him 309-661-2788 or firstname.lastname@example.org. “At any moment in a legislative office, you are dealing with various constituents. Over the last year we were inundated with historic levels of unemployment claims. Still today, people who are trying to navigate a system that is broken at the state level. They are not getting calls back with no acknowledgment that their claims are there let alone getting the unemployment relief they are seeking. We’ve done a huge amount of those and continue to.
“We deal with tons of FOID card issues. A little bit less concealed carry. Common complaints,” he said. “That’s just good old fashioned constituent service. I also hope they reach out with the more complex things. They are trying to grow their business, the law won’t allow it. They need some help, like the guy trying to grow his mead business. Those are fun issues to help to solve. “
Illinois has tremendous assents. “Agriculture continues to be our number one industry and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “I think our infrastructure system is strong. It’s being improved. Controversial as it is, the gas tax was raised and it generated more money for local communities to repair roads and bridges and some of our rural communities those were very necessary investments.
“I think we have some very high quality schools, pre-K through high school and beyond. Our community college system is fantastic. We have some great universities. The Midwest work ethic, I think, attracts employers.”
He said the Mitsubishi plant in Normal shut down several years ago. “When that shut down, it resulted in 1,000 jobs being lost overnight in Central Illinois.Today the Rivian Electric Vehicle manufacturing company now has acquired that plant. They have partnered with Amazon and Ford and they are employing hundreds of people today, with plans to grow significantly in the coming months and over the next year. They could easily eclipse the number of employers Mitsubishi had. They are drawing employees from all over Central Illinois. Good, steady paying, well above minimum wage jobs. That is a huge success for Central Illinois. I love it. I’m all for that. My view is, let’s do more.”
The state has several challenges: an unbalanced budget, a challenged pension system, “and people still look to Illinois for the positive assets and attributes. Let’s champion those and build on those and let’s do more.”