These are questions I was asked recently on the campaign trail.
Q: “Hillary Clinton said she wanted to invest $30 billion in the Coal Belt for clean up efforts and to restore the water quality in the Ohio Valley watershed. What do you think about that idea?”
$30 billion isn’t going to do much if there aren’t standards applied throughout the region. The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission is likely to give up its responsibility on managing the river, which is a huge concern for me as this would leave the care of this vital resource to individual states. We need to provide stability and support to the Commission, be actively working with community members, officials, organizations, and businesses, and promoting this publicly to reverse this decision.
Q: “What do you see as (the) greatest opportunity for economic development? What other opportunities do you see for economic development for (the) region? What specifically would you do to help (southeastern Illinois) recover economically? What future do you believe the Progressive movement and the Democratic Party has in the United States has without the Coal Belt?”
After the deregulation of the coal industry in Illinois, we can’t compete with other states. Automation, bad business practices, and lack of union coal jobs all play a part in the decimation of coal in Illinois. However, under President Obama, coal production rose to 10% below 1970 numbers. Coal jobs did not correlate with the increase in production. Layoffs have been occurring not only in Illinois but in Western Kentucky as well. We need new industries.
Coal is vital for energy production as well as steel production. The technology has greatly improved, and America does it better than anywhere else. I wrote on this subject last November, https://gaither4il.com/coal-steel/.
Small energy companies as well as family farms don’t have a level playing field with their larger competitors.
The regulation and fee schemes are designed to squeeze them out of the market, and actually support bad behavior by the biggest companies. We have to correct those problems in order to keep more money and jobs in our communities.
Solar and wind farms are great industries that can create investment and job creation opportunities.
However, it’s not near enough to combat the job losses and unemployment numbers.
With all of our farmland, we should be growing hemp as we did during WW II.
25,000 products are made from hemp. We should be making these products here, exporting these to other states and around the world, and become a new economic center in the Midwest. Currently, hemp oils are being sold in Illinois made from hemp grown in Kentucky and Massachusetts. It also combines with products we have here, like honey.
Another opportunity is to create new tourist destinations to drive money back into Southern Illinois.
Art communities have been very successful at creating linkages between farm and town, giving the square a facelift, providing artists housing, work, and a place to sell their work. Combined with our National Forests, State Parks, lakes, and more, these can create circuits for summer camping groups. Also, opening up the empty storefronts in our town centers can give property owners access to potential investors.
Q: “Mental health is a huge problem in rural areas. The southeastern counties (are) no exception. What, specifically, would you do to address rural mental health issues in those counties in Congress?”
This is a major priority of mine. I was recently the only Democratic candidate at a forum in Highland. The Republicans were all running for state representative and state senate seats. All of them wanted to cut the budget but were all for increasing access to mental health treatment. It didn’t make any sense to me how they could do both while cutting taxes, and I said as much.
There are a series of issues that we have to address here.
Providers and Access
There aren’t enough counselors, therapists, or social workers to meet the needs. Wait times are too long. If someone needs to see a psychiatrist, the wait times multiply quickly if a psychiatrist even is in the county. Some counseling centers have the ‘Doctor in a Box’ option, but this simply doesn’t replace having the face-to-face interaction.
States are poaching our health professionals by offering free housing during the days and nights while they work there. The pay is better in these other states.
We have to be able to better compete as a region with pay, benefits, and housing. If we’re going to keep our brightest here, we need to pay them for their dedication. This will help bring specialists and other professionals to downstate Illinois.
High Costs, Health Insurance, Universal Healthcare
The high cost of healthcare in Illinois is part of the reason why we can’t better compete for the best and brightest, helping to stop the brain drain. There are a number of reasons for this.
The backlog of Medicaid payments is a serious concern for community healthcare and hospitals. As a state, we have to make healthcare a priority, especially for low income, people living with disabilities, seniors, veterans, and the chronically ill.
The current system is a broken bureaucracy that punishes work, creates undue amounts of paperwork for both clients and the state, and doesn’t serve the best interests of taxpayers or those who need these services. We have to fix this system, either by the state (which seems unlikely) or with federal guidelines and oversight. When states are unable to manage their Medicaid programs or unable to care for their citizens that these programs are funded to protect, Congress has a role to play.
We’re still not negotiating prescription drug prices. We’re still not dropping state borders allowing insurance providers to go national. We’re still not protecting people from high deductibles and high premiums, both in the individual marketplace and from employer-based plans. The fee for service model is broken, and it is time for a new approach. We can do something about each of those issues on a bipartisan basis because there is broad bipartisan support.
Meanwhile, we can work to pass a public option where there are minimal choices for people. Universal healthcare won’t be a slam dunk before the 2020 election and will be difficult to get over the finish line afterwards. We have to fight to make healthcare more affordable and more accessible every day until we achieve that goal.
The way we help increase the number of in demand healthcare professionals is by increasing the size of programs that educate them. We have great colleges and universities throughout downstate Illinois that have counseling, social work, and other degrees focused on graduating professionals. Many of these programs have limited cohort sizes at any given time due to accreditation constraints, which are vital to maintain.
We must provide additional grants and scholarships for students as well as more funding for the programs themselves in order to increase the size of these departments, increasing the size of graduating classes. Linking grants and scholarships to staying in the region is useful in keeping that talent from fleeing the state.