Rep. Tom Weber optimistic as 101st General Assembly begins
Lake Villa Republican begins first term serving 64th District
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – On his first business day in the Illinois Statehouse, newly-elected Rep. Tom Weber settled into his new office, a jar of homemade beef jerky on his desk, and smiled with a cautious sense of optimism.
“I’m positive until there’s something not to be positive about,” the Lake Villa Republican said in an interview Tuesday, shortly before the House gaveled into session to begin the 101st General Assembly.
For Weber and other Republicans in the Statehouse, that optimism might seem misplaced. With a new Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker, in office, and with Democrats holding supermajorities in both chambers, GOP lawmakers might have to struggle just to be relevant in policy discussions.
But Weber said there is widespread hope this year that the partisan gridlock that characterized the past four years in Springfield, and which led to a historic two-year budget stalemate, is now a thing of the past.
“Obviously, I wasn’t here. But I had seen male and female legislators both crying about their experience here in the last four years,” Weber said. “It’s got to be hard when you have ideas that you think are good ideas, and you want to really have an impact and make a difference in people’s lives, and hopefully better the lives of people in your district, and not be able to do anything.”
“Because it’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears running for office,” he added. “I think we all, in general, want to do the right thing. I’m hoping that I don’t have that same experience.”
A carpenter and small business owner by trade, Weber is also a former member of the Lake County Board. He won the 64th District House seat in the 2018 elections over Democratic opponent Trisha Zubert by a comfortable margin, 58-42 percent, to succeed former Republican Rep. Barbara Wheeler.
As the 2019 session got underway this past week, Weber jumped straight into the water, joining his fellow Republicans in pushing for a number of legislative reforms. The first was a package of proposed changes to House rules that Republicans intended would rein in the power of a handful of leaders to control what bills get heard in the House, and to give minority voices more of a say.
That quickly proved to be unsuccessful. But Weber is more hopeful about another proposal, which Gov. Pritzker has said he favors in principle. That’s the so-called “Fair Maps” constitutional amendment that would hand over the responsibility of redrawing legislative and congressional district maps every 10 years to an independent, bipartisan commission.
“I think if you look at the map of my district, it’s a perfect example of gerrymandering,” Weber said, showing the map of the 64th District that he’d pulled up on his smart phone. “When people say ‘gerrymandering,’ I think that’s one of the districts that actually shows pretty good what gerrymandering can look like. I have a lot of towns, but my district goes around most of them.”
Weber said he is also hopeful that the General Assembly can reach bipartisan agreement on another of Pritzker’s stated priorities, a long-term capital improvements package to rebuild the state’s roads, bridges and other public infrastructure, something Weber said is particularly important in the 64th District.
“Road projects are always important,” he said. “We know we have Route 47 going through McHenry County. And Route 31 is always important.”
Looming over everything in Illinois state government, however, is the condition of the state’s finances. Although Pritzker and Democratic leaders are eager to increase funding for public infrastructure, education and a host of other projects, the state still faces a backlog of roughly $8 billion in unpaid bills, according to the latest information from Comptroller Susana Mendoza.
That is sure to ignite significant debate over whether the state needs to increase revenues, cut spending, or try to manage a combination of both.
“I think both,” Weber said. “The state’s been around a long time. If you look at new legislation, we’re going to have thousands of bills proposed this year. Many of those are going to cost new revenue spending. I can’t imagine we can’t look back at legislation from 20 years ago, or 30 years ago. Things change. We don’t need necessarily to address the same issues the same way. Are there ways to make funds be used more adequately?”
But Weber said there are still areas where he is likely to stake out different positions from the governor’s office, and chief among those is Pritzker’s call for a graduated, or progressive income tax structure that would apply higher rates to incomes earned above certain thresholds.
“Right now, I am against it,” he said. “I would like to see the numbers on what those tax rates would be, because I’ve seen some of the bills that were proposed in the previous assembly where people making $17,000 and up would pay more. So, unless you’re going to add another lane for people to drive out of Illinois, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”
Meanwhile, as partisan battles ebb and flow in the Statehouse over issues of taxes, spending and other policy areas, Weber said his top priority will be to stay in touch with his district. And that alone can be challenging in an era when many constituents feel detached from state government.
“Honestly, usually a small portion of the community is informed (about state government),” Weber said. “I want to try to do my best to keep more people engaged in what’s going on. When I was on the county board, I found the best way for people to understand what was going on was for me to be out in public and be able to talk about what stuff was going on, give people a better understanding, try to engage people.”
Weber said community outreach and getting the word out about constituent services will be a priority of his local office. He said he has a good legislative assistant, and the office is centrally located and easily accessible.
“I’m hoping to have some mobile hours where I can go out in the community, maybe at a library or at a village hall, and be able to meet with constituents and address their concerns,” he said.