Suzanne Ness: Candidate profile, 66th Illinois House District

Democrat Suzanne Ness of Crystal Lake, a McHenry County Board member, is challenging incumbent Republican Allen Skillicorn of East Dundee in the race for the 66th Illinois House District.

Q. Should Speaker Madigan resign from his leadership positions? If he does not resign, will you support him for a new term as House speaker?

A. As a candidate for State Representative that has never worked in Springfield, my main goal right now is to talk to voters and learn what their priorities are for state government before I even consider who I would vote for as speaker of the House. I will only commit to voting for a Speaker that shares the values of the communities that I represent and someone who will join me in fighting for affordable health care, good paying jobs, and tax relief for middle-class families. There is no doubt that Illinois is in need of real honest ethical reforms and I would expect to work with a Speaker who is committed to making those necessary changes.

As a member of the McHenry County Board, I worked to set new ethical guidelines on the board and build relationships across party lines to promote bipartisan solutions. I will bring that same approach to Springfield, because our state's problems are larger than one person or one party and pointing the blame will not help us reach productive solutions.

Q. What is the biggest challenge facing your district and how do you propose tackling it in the legislature?

A. The biggest problem facing my district currently is the lack of leadership and services provided to local residents. For the past six years, we have had a representative who has done nothing to improve our local communities or serve as a voice for our families in Springfield. Currently, our district has a fragmented social service network. Within District 66, there are no homeless shelters, a limited number of low-income clinics, and no community college or trade schools.

In addition to the few services available within our district, the area lacks regional public transportation for those wishing to receive services in other parts of Kane and McHenry County. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues. Navigating the difficulties of the failed unemployment system with no assistance from our representative has left too many families without access to the benefits they need.

While no one was prepared for this pandemic, we should be able to rely on our elected officials and leader to provide necessary services and assistance during these times. As State Rep., I will be open and accessible to constituents especially in times of crisis.

Q. The graduated income tax is designed with the intent to reduce taxes for 97 percent of Illinoisans. Do you believe that will happen? Why or why not? What assurances can be given to voters?

A. Illinoisans will have the final say on whether or not the income tax structure in our state should change and giving voters that power is how this process should be done. If the amendment passes, legislators will be tasked with the responsibility of providing necessary oversight in the budget process to ensure that all revenues are being used to benefit the state as a whole by improving the state's finances, encouraging economic growth and ensuring the future viability of our state. Whether or not the fair tax passes, it is obvious that more tax relief is needed for middle class families.

Q. ComEd officials have acknowledged in an agreement with the federal government that it funneled money through contractors to friends and colleagues of Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan. What do you think should happen as a result of this. Specifically, how should potential legislation impacting ComEd be handled next session?

A. ComEd's admission shows the lengths special interests will go to get their way, and any elected official convicted of working with them to violate the public's trust should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. When dealing with any legislation impacting ComEd or any other special interest, we should make sure these measures will actually benefit Illinois families and the state, not just corporations.

This is Illinois' opportunity to create energy policies that serve the community and not corporate interests. ComEd is part of the problem, but not the entire issue. We need to make sure we are taking all steps to stop future events like this from happening again.

Q. Describe at least two circumstances in which you have shown or would show a willingness and capacity to act independently of the direction or demands of party leadership.

A. As a member of the McHenry County Board, I pride myself on working with all members of the board, regardless of political ideologies. Within my first year on the board, I was able to introduce new ethics guidelines for the board with a group of other women board members on both sides of the aisle. Currently, I continue to work with members of the board, both Republican and Democrat, to create bipartisan solutions to our county's problems.

The problems in this state are much broader than just one party or belief. In Springfield, I am committed to working with any representative who also wants to see common-sense legislation for tax relief, affordable health care and anti-corruption policies passed, regardless of their party affiliation. I am going to Springfield to work for the people of the 66th District and no one else.

Q. How would you rate the governor's handling of the COVID-19 crisis? Does the legislature need to have more input and influence in establishing rules and policies related to stemming the spread of the disease? What you have done differently, if anything? If nothing, please say so.

A. Gov. Pritzker took a lead early on in declaring a state of emergency and issuing the stay-at-home directives in order to stop the spread of COVID and worked to build an infrastructure of health care in case the infection spread out of control, which helped Illinois become a state with one of the lowest infection rates in the U.S. In addition, the state has done well allocating emergency funds to local counties and municipalities, and providing information and access to business resources and federal aid.

Any legislation or policies that our State passes in relation to COVID must be guided by science and the advice of medical experts. Where the governor could have done better is working on the issues of accessing unemployment benefits. I've talked to many people who are still not getting their benefits and they can't get a hold of anyone when they try to call. This is unacceptable.

Q. Regardless of whether the federal government provides assistance, what is the impact of the pandemic on the state's economic outlook and what immediate and long-term actions should be taken to address it? Would you support increasing taxes to pay for COVID-19 response or to make up for lost revenue related to COVID-19?

A. Instead of imposing a tax on our middle-class and struggling families, I want to see the federal government take a firmer leadership role in tackling this pandemic. Illinois and other states have been struggling to keep afloat during this pandemic from the lack of PPE, financial and educational support from the federal government. While we are still learning what all the impacts COVID-19 will have on our state's finances, the legislature must be prepared to deal with the influx of furloughed workers, displaced families and a backlog of finances that are a result of the global pandemic.

On the McHenry County Board, we were able to enact a balanced budget within my first year on the board. We must do the same at a state level. As a legislature we must also continue work on the financial reforms that were started before the pandemic, like the consolidation of statewide pensions. Our first priority should be protecting essential health care needs, education and senior care while also managing how much the state is spending as a whole.

Q. Do you support any type of tax on retirement benefits?

A. I do not support any tax on retirement benefits.

Q. Should Illinois prohibit lawmakers from lobbying other levels of government? Should lawmakers be prohibited from becoming lobbyists after their term in office? For how long?

A. I believe that Illinois should prohibit lawmakers from lobbying other levels of government. I would support any legislation that toughens restrictions for those who wish to become a lobbyist, like longer waiting periods after leaving public office and universal lobbyist registration. I want the residents of the 66th District and Illinois to be able to trust that I am working for the benefit of them in Springfield and not for special interests. Whatever we can do to make lobbying more transparent for the public is necessary.

Q. What are the most important components that should be included in legislative ethics reform? What will you do to help them come to pass?

A. The most important components to include in ethics reform are harsher fines for politicians found guilty of violating the public's trust. This should include paying back every dime of taxpayer money that lawmaker has received. I would also like to see pensions stripped for politicians convicted of crimes, a ban on red-light cameras, and as I mentioned before, more thorough lobbyist registration policies.

Q. What should the state do to address the still-growing problems with its key pension programs?

A. Consolidation is key and it has already begun. Also, strictly protecting pension funds and limiting pensions to one per person - even if they take the highest one, only allowing a person to collect one pension from a state-funded plan. Any plans for pension reform must include bringing all stakeholders to the table so that all interest groups can make their voices heard and so decisions are not being made solely by lawmakers.

Q. Do you believe climate change is caused by human activity? What steps should state government be taking to address the issue?

A. Yes, I believe that climate change is caused by human activity and we need to explore a number of options including building a renewable energy infrastructure, looking into activities like regenerative farming since so much of Illinois is covered in farmland, and encourage companies and individuals to use more recycling and upcycling in manufacturing and purchasing. A shift toward more renewable energy can also help to bring thousands of new green energy jobs to help improve our local economy.

Q. Protesters have massed in the streets in Chicago and other cities across Illinois for greater social justice and changes in the funding and responsibilities for police. How significant a role does systemic racism play in limiting equal opportunity in Illinois? To the degree that it exists, what should be done about it? What, if any, changes should be made in funding and duties of police?

A. Systemic racism has plagued our country for too long. The recent murders of black and brown men and women are unjust and deserving of the highest level of justice, but we also must realize that reacting with violence is not the answer. As a nonperson of color, myself and other non-people of color must be willing to listen and be open to the experiences of underserved communities. I am an ally both in protest and in legislation.

Illinois passed a bipartisan police reform measure several years ago with input from stakeholders, community members, and legislators on both sides of the aisle, and that same approach should be used now to address the current challenges. As State Rep., I would work with the Black Caucus, our local sheriffs, police officers, community leaders, local residents, and underserved communities to listen to their concerns and raise their voices in the conversation to develop meaningful change.

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