While state Rep. Allen Skillicorn took aim at embattled House Speaker Michael Madigan and those that receive support from him, his opponent in this November’s election criticized the practice of having legislative colleagues cast votes on their behalf, something Skillicorn has done.
Suzanne Ness, a Democrat who currently sits on the McHenry County Board, is seeking to unseat Skillicorn, R-Crystal Lake, this November in District 66, which runs from Crystal Lake and Lakewood in the north through Lake in the Hills, Huntley and Algonquin into Kane County where it also includes Gilberts, Sleepy Hollow and West Dundee.
The two sparred Friday on issues of ethics Friday during an endorsement interview held jointly by the Northwest Herald and Daily Herald editorial boards. They also discussed their ideas on how to deal with the economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the troubled Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
When it comes to dealing with the economic downturn caused by coronavirus, Skillicorn said the majority of Illinois’ budget is in a few crucial areas, including pensions, elementary and secondary education, and Medicaid.
The state needs to spend less money in those areas, he said, and Medicaid and pension reform is a must.
“I’ve got a pension toolkit that would actually bring that back in line in just a decade, instead of letting spiral out of control,” he said.
Another thing that could be done is “unleashing” Illinois’ economy, Skillicorn said, in light of a drastic reduction in jobs.
“Illinois usually likes to have more regulations and more restrictions for jobs, so we always see a delay in our economic recoveries based on our surrounding states,” Skillicorn said. “What we need to do is reverse that trend.”
Skillicorn said some of the measures and restrictions the state took because of COVID-19 are restricting jobs and small businesses, effectively slowing down the economy.
“We need to get these people back to work,” Skillicorn said. “We need to have them take the necessary precautions, but to actually get back to work and open up again.”
Ness said the first place to start in regards to COVID-19 is to make sure that the federal government reimburses the state and does their part in this effort.
This is not about blaming anyone, Ness said, but if the federal government had stepped in and treated COVID-19 like a national crisis, businesses would be open and kids would be back in school.
“We wouldn’t see some of the suffering that we’re seeing now,” Ness said.
A lack of coordinated leadership and effort to mitigate the coronavirus when cases were first detected in the U.S. in January left states, Illinois included, having to scramble and work on their own, Ness said.
Regional efforts are also needed, Ness said, so people can come together and share resources, create efficiencies and create access for people so they can get the services.
Some key areas in the state need transformation, too, she added.
“It’s a great time to look at ideas that might not have been looked at a couple of years ago,” Ness said.
When it comes to ethics legislation, Ness said she supports a break on the amount of time before former legislators can become lobbyists.
Something else Ness said she would like to see is much stronger conflicts of interest initiatives being put into the ethics ordinance.
“A lot of people have other jobs that they do and that they continue to do as representatives, or even maintaining and holding two offices at the same time,” Ness said. “Those sort of things are all things that undermine the integrity of this body.”
There isn’t enough strong external oversight in the legislature, Ness said, so the body largely oversees itself.
“That’s not always a good thing,” Ness said, pointing out that Skillicorn was on record for casting 23 votes last year when he wasn’t in Springfield.
“He was outside of the district campaigning,” she said. “When the allegations came out, the response was, well, everybody does that. And I think that’s terrible. We have a responsibility to, to hold ourselves and each other accountable, and to our colleagues.”
Skillicorn, speaking after Ness, did not directly respond to these allegations. Instead, he took aim at Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, and those who take support from him.
“We’re not going to see ethics reform here while speaker Madigan is still speaker in Illinois,” Skillicorn said.
Skillicorn said he has publicly asked Madigan, who has been under fire since utility giant ComEd agreed to pay $200 million in a bribery investigation with ties to him, to step down.
After the death of AJ Freund by his parents highlighted the failures of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, both candidates agree change in the agency is needed.
Skillicorn said a lot of times, the state child welfare agency has a bad track record where they pushed children back into failing relationships with their families, instead of protecting them.
“There are over 100 children that have died in our DCFS care in the state of Illinois this year,” Skillicorn said, adding that with the state of the economy, this number is “probably going to surge higher than we even imagined.”
“That is super unfortunate, and children are suffering,” Skillicorn said. “So we need to see a little more accountability at the top of the agency.”
Right now, Skillicorn said, these people do not have a personal stake in the lives of children.
The problem is that DCFS is run the same way as the state would run the department of motor of vehicles, he said.
Skillicorn said more of this care has to be done through the local agencies, instead of what he called the “current bureaucratic mess” going on right now.
“These are not stacks of paper. These are human beings with life, with challenges, with emotions,” Skillicorn said. “We are not protecting them. And this is something that is a core service of our state.”
Ness said she grew up in a home that took in foster kids. Even then, 30-something years ago, the foster care system was broken, Ness said..
“The mission of DCFS, to keep family’s unification, does not put children’s safety first,” Ness said.
The agency has been historically underfunded, Ness said. Though they have made some improvements, Ness said many investigators burn out and leave the agency.
Ness said recent increases in the number of supervisors and a decrease in caseloads have been good steps but aren’t enough. More community efforts have to happen, and local jurisdictions need to help and assist in these cases, she said.
Beyond that, Ness said, trauma training for all first responders, health care workers, emergency room workers, is needed.