Windhorst vows to work for southern Illinois, conservative principles in Springfield
Serving 118th District after defeating incumbent Democrat in general election
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – When newly-elected state Rep. Patrick Windhorst sat down for an interview on Tuesday, Jan. 29, he and other House Republicans had already lost their first legislative skirmish.
It was an attempt to change the rules of the House in a way that would rein in the power of majority party leaders to control the flow of legislation, and give minority voices more say in deciding what comes up for a vote and what doesn’t. And while it might have seemed like so much inside baseball to outside observers, for Windhorst and other Republicans, it was important.
“It is not transparent. It is not bipartisan,” Windhorst said of the existing rules. “It doesn’t allow members to have any sort of ability to move things forward by building coalitions. It basically puts power in one person’s hand. I don’t agree with that.”
Windhorst, a Metropolis Republican and former Massac County state’s attorney, is likely to face more clashes with Democratic leaders in the months ahead, particularly with longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), whose grip on power in Springfield was a central theme of Windhorst’s 2018 campaign.
“I campaigned on a platform that he had served too long and that we needed to have a change in that role, that as speaker he has too much power,” he said.
Windhorst won the 118th District race in November by defeating the Democratic incumbent, former Rep. Natalie Phelps Finnie. But his victory came during an election when Republicans overall lost seats in both chambers of the Statehouse and voters statewide elected a new Democratic governor.
Now he finds himself part of a superminority in Springfield. Despite that, Windhorst has not shied away from his conservative principles.
So far, Windhorst has signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill that would repeal last year’s controversial new law that allows public funding for abortion services. He has also signed on to proposed legislation to strengthen the state’s bail laws, including one that would allow counties outside of Cook County to opt out of the state’s 2017 Bail Reform Act, which makes it easier for people charged with minor crimes to be released without posting a cash bond.
Windhorst said much of his outlook on legislation is shaped by economic and social conditions in southern Illinois, which are often vastly different from those of Chicago and other major population centers, as well as his experience as a prosecutor.
“I’m from Metropolis, right across the river from Paducah, Kentucky,” he said. “Young families are just picking up and moving to Paducah because they pay less in property taxes. They feel like they have more opportunity, better life quality, and it’s causing a huge problem in southern Illinois. People are leaving and they’re not coming back.”
For that reason, Windhorst said, he has a very different outlook on some of the key issues facing the state than Gov. Pritzker or the Democratic leadership of the House.
On the environment, for example, Pritzker recently announced that his administration has joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group of governors and states that have vowed to abide by international goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from coal-fired power plants. Windhorst said that could have a big impact on the southern Illinois coal industry.
“In fact, I’ve had several constituents approach me,” he said. “They’re concerned about what it’s going to mean for the future of their jobs. To me, that sort of issue should occur on the national level because of the impact it’s going to have on the economy as a whole rather than each state trying to cobble together a proposal.”
Windhorst said he also has reservations about raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“The issue we would have in our part of the state is, again, when you talk about businesses opening, they can open in Kentucky, Missouri or Indiana, which have a lower minimum wage, and therefore a lower cost of labor,” he said. “Or they can open in Illinois, which would have double the cost of labor and it would just make it that much harder for small business.”
And Windhorst said he does not necessarily believe the state should look to legalized recreational marijuana or expanded gambling as a way to generate new revenue and balance the state budget.
“I would fall on the side that says we need to get a better grip on spending,” he said. “There are studies out – I’ve seen one last year and then another one recently – showing that Illinois is among the top states in its overall tax burden, which to me suggests, given the size of our state, it’s not a revenue issue. It is a spending issue.”
“Now, to me, we’ve got to address the spending side, but there’s also a kind of third, or middle path,” he added. “And that is to try to increase the economy of the state. And that will, in turn, generate more tax revenue. If you improve the business climate, if more people are moving here, more businesses are opening here, that creates tax revenue, aside from increasing taxes.”
Despite partisan differences, Windhorst said he remains focused on the needs of southern Illinois and of the 118th District. In fact, two of the bills he has introduced so far were originally put forth by his Democratic predecessor.
One would add video stalking to the list of offenses for which a person convicted would have to register as a sex offender. Another would expand a property tax exemption for widows of military veterans to include people who are not originally Illinois residents.
More than anything else, however, Windhorst said that when he looks back on his first term in office, he hopes he can point to a truly balanced state budget as a major achievement.
“They believed last year was a truly balanced budget,” he said. “It was close, as close as we’ve come in some time, but it was still $1.5 billion in the red. That would be very important to me, to work toward a truly balanced budget. I believe the public is demanding it.”