Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2012, 6:20 pm

Smiddy set to challenge Morthland for state representative seat

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By Eric Timmons,

Democrat Mike Smiddy, of Hillsdale, is challenging State Rep. Rich Morthland, R-Cordova, for the state representative seat in District 71.

Rep. Morthland was elected to the seat in 2010, when he defeated Democrat Dennis Ahern, by taking 58 percent of the vote. Former Rep. Mike Boland, a Democrat, had held the district for 15 years before stepping down.

Mr. Smiddy, who works at East Moline Correctional Center, defeated Jim Arduiniin the March Democratic primary. He also worked as an assistant to former Democratic Congressman Lane Evans for nine years.

Rep Morthlandwas unopposed in the primary but took7,298 votes, more than the combined 5,686 votes for the Democratic candidates.

The district includes plenty of rural terrain in Whiteside, Carroll and Henry counties and also a chunk of upper Rock Island County, the site of Rep. Morthland's family farm.

Mr. Smiddy and Rep. Morthlandfaced off in an election when they ran for the District 1 seat on the Rock Island County Board in 2008. Mr. Smiddynarrowly lost that election to Rep. Morthland, who went on to serve two years on the county board.

In this election, Mr. Smiddy is being heavily backed by unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, of which he's a member. Rep. Morthlandhas his own labor allies, having been endorsed by the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Some of Rep. Morthland's larger donors include Ameren and John Deere.

On the question of what to do about the state's $83 billion unfunded pension liability, Mr. Smiddy said unions are willing to pay more into the system but have been "left out of the game" by the state's leaders.

"I don't believe that they are worried about getting a haircut; they're worried about getting a lobotomy to the pension program," he said of state workers. "We have a chance of actually solving the problem if they'd get all the players together at the table."

Any pension reform package must mandate that the state cannot skip contributions, which has happened in the past, Mr. Smiddy said.

Rep. Morthland pointed to the 3 percent compounded annual increase, or Cost Of Living Adjustment, that retired public employees get as an area where savings can be made.

"We could remove the compounding, that's definitely something we should consider," he said.

He acknowledges that as a junior member in the minority party he won't have much of a say in deciding what goes into a pension reform bill. He praised Gov. Pat Quinn for trying to push the state in right direction on the pension issue.

"Obviously, I'm not going to be the guy who crafts the bill, but I will say that one of the things that's helped is the governor is on board because he likes to borrow money and build stuff, which is fine," he said.

Both candidates are opposed to the plan supported by some Chicago Democrats to shift the part of downstate teachers pensions picked up by the state onto local school districts.

Mr. Smiddy has been critical of Rep. Morthland for voting against a high-speed rail bill that could have aided the development of a high speed rail service between Chicago and the Quad Cities.

The governor vetoed the bill in question, which would have established a commission to develop high speed rail.

Rep. Morthland said he does see the advantages of bringing Amtrak to the Quad Cities, especially when it comes to connecting the new Western Illinois University Riverfront campus to the Chicago market, but has reservations about the spending involved.

"I am a very lukewarm supporter," he said. "It's really wonderful to ride Amtrak, because tickets are cheap because the taxpayers pay for them."

Mr. Smiddy is fully behind the proposed Amtrak line and sees it as an example of the kind of public infrastructure investment that will stimulate growth in the private sector.

There's agreement between the candidates on the governor's plan to shutter the super-max Tamms Correctional Center, which union officials say will further add to the problem of overcrowding at prisons like EMCC.

"We should not be closing any of the institutions in this state because of the massive overcrowding," Mr. Smiddy said.

Rep. Morthland said Gov. Quinn's plan to close Tamms, which has been tied up in a legal battle with AFSCME, was motivated by Chicago Democrats who oppose conditions at the prison for humanitarian reasons.

"Particularly in a system where there is no death penalty there are people who need to be restrained through that kind of system, and the life expectancy of our guards went up when they opened Tamms," Rep. Morthland said.

Beyond the pension crisis, Illinois also has a large deficit in its $33.8 billion general fund budget, which stood at $8 billion at the end of the 2011 fiscal year.

Asked about ways the state could save money to begin to close that gap, Mr. Smiddysaid closer attention should be paid to some of the incentives the state gives to corporations, citing the tax cut given to Sears last year as an example.

"We gave them an $80 million tax cut last year, then they go and cut half of their employees in Chicago, which is devastating to the economy up there," he said. "We should be able to go back and get those tax breaks back."

Rep. Morthland thinks the grip of Chicago on the state legislature needs to be loosened, and in particular, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan needs to go.

"The guy has been in since the Beatles were a band," Rep. Morthland said. "He's been the Speaker with the exception of two years since the '82 election. We need change, we really do."

When Mr. Smiddywon his primary election in March, he promised he would be a full-time legislator and said that was in contrast to Rep. Morthland, who juggles his political work with a teaching job at Black Hawk and work on his farm.

Rep. Morthland said he rejected the criticism from his opponent and said it was better to retain one foot outside the political sphere than to be a full-time politician.

"Everybody I've talked to says that full time politicians are what's wrong with politics," he said. "Having a real job is what keeps me grounded."

AFSCME's contract with the state provides that members who run for office can take an unpaid leave of absence from his job that will allow him to fully dedicate his time to politics.

He has the option of returning to a job with the Illinois Department of Corrections if he wins the election but then loses re-election in the future or stands down.

Name: Mike Smiddy
Party: Democrat
Age: 39
City: Hillsdale
Occupation: Supply supervisor II at East Moline Correctional Center/Illinois Department of Corrections
Education: United Township High School, Western Illinois University
Family: Married with two sons
Political Experience: 9 years as staff assistant for former U.S. Rep. Lane Evans
Social Networking: Facebook (Mike Smiddy for IL - 71)

Name: Rich Morthland
Party: Republican
City: Rural Cordova
Occupation: State Representative., College Professor, Farmer
Education: Attended BHC, BA: St. Ambrose, MDiv: Denver Seminary, MA (Anticipated) Spring Arbor University
Family: Married with two daughters
Political Experience: Rock Island County Board member 2008-2010,  state presentative from 011-Present
Social Networking: Facebook – Rich Morthland

Illinois House of Representatives

Duties: Enacts state laws, acts on federal constitutional amendments and proposes state constitutional amendments. It also can impeach executive and judicial officials. State representatives serve two-year terms.

2012 base salary: $67,836/year.