Running for: 66th IL House
Political party affiliation: Democrat
Political/civic info: Suzanne has served on the Northern Kane County Chamber of Commerce Board and is an online Adjunct Professor for the School of Business at Purdue University Global. She also developed a Young Leaders Coaching and Mentoring program for Teens at Dundee Crown HS and continues to work with the teens to this day. In November 2018 she was elected to serve on the McHenry County Board.
Occupation: Forward Effect Coaching: 13 years Small business owner/entrepreneur, specializing in workforce development, communication skills, and leadership development.
Public Official: Elected McHenry County Board Member in 2018
Purdue Global University: Adjunct faculty member for 10 years
Living Forward Foundation: Founder 7 years
Education: Bachelor’s of Science: Communication Studies with a minor in Women’s Studies from ASU in Tempe AZ
Master’s of Arts in Organizational Management from University of Phoenix in Phoenix AZ
Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, from Coaches Training International in San Francisco CA
Campaign website: citizens4suzanneness.com
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent nominees for the Illinois House of Representatives a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois and their districts. Suzanne Ness submitted the following responses:
The COVID-19 pandemic has hammered the finances of Illinois. The state is staring at a $6.2 billion budget shortfall in this fiscal year. What should be done? Please be specific.
Illinois has had financial challenges for some time which were certainly not helped by the 2 years without a budget thanks to Governor Rauner. The pandemic has not helped the slow recovery that had begun. Every department’s budget in State Government should be reviewed to accommodate the reduction in funding. State agencies and departments should prioritize projects and contracts that are deemed essential especially resources for workers on the front lines of saving lives and those processing unemployment benefits for displaced workers. As we continue to navigate the challenges of COVID-19, our focus should be on protecting services such as COVID testing and treatment, senior care, relief for small businesses and safety protections for our students.This is also an opportunity to review how work gets done, cutting budgets for traveling, reducing operational expenses for buildings that are not being used, and redirecting staff to work in other areas where there is the greatest need. This is a time for leaders of departments to come together and find ways to work together, sharing resources if necessary, to help stabilize the economy until we rebound. Property tax reform is necessary and there were some good ideas that came from the task force assembled last year to review the topic. COVID stopped that work and it needs to resume. As challenging as these times are, it is also a time for change to occur. Ideas that were once thought impossible, are suddenly realizable because so much has changed already. Having leaders with vision is more necessary than ever.
What grade — “A” to “F” — would you give Gov. J.B. Pritzker for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic? Please explain. What, if anything, should he have done differently?
Governor 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 healthcare in case the infection spread out of control. He has held almost daily briefings keeping the public informed, and when the time came to move into less restrictive phases, he included guidance and tool kits for businesses and different job sectors across the state. He has also stayed focused to what our main objective should be: reducing death rates and saving lives. The State has done well releasing emergency funds to local counties and municipalities and providing information and access to business resources, in addition to the PPP loans and other federal relief programs. I would have liked to have seen more testing sites throughout the state-access to testing has continued to be an issue especially in my district. The other component missing is contact tracing. For months public health officials have talked about the 3 T’s testing, tracing, treating. If testing and tracing were more accessible, it would be easier to consider re-opening schools and businesses. As it stands, it is an area that continues to lag behind. The other area 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 the one low mark in the State’s response under Governor Pritzker.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, legislatures in some states have taken up the issue of police reform. Should Illinois do the same? If so, what would that look like?
Illinois passed a bipartisan police reform measure several years ago with input from stakeholders, community members and legislators on both sides of the aisle. That same approach should be used now to strengthen the relationships between law enforcement and citizens. Every local community’s issues are different, and any reforms on the state level must take into consideration the diversity of our state. As State Representative, 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.
Should the Legislature pass a law requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras? Why or why not?
The main priority in any reforms should be focused on strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and the community. Body cameras should be a part of the conversation as a way to provide added protections for police officers and accountability for the public. Again, every community throughout the state is different and there are many challenges that would need to be addressed in terms of resource available for training and technology.
Federal prosecutors have revealed a comprehensive scheme of bribery, ghost jobs and favoritism in subcontracting by ComEd to influence the actions of House Speaker Michael Madigan. Who’s to blame? What ethics reforms should follow? Should Madigan resign?
ComEd’s admission shows the lengths special interests will go to get their way, and any elected official or individual convicted of working with them to violate the public’s trust should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Illinois’ issues of corruption and ethical violations has spread across both parties and from the highest level of government to the local level. We are far overdue for meaningful reforms to clean up the way our government operates.
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. Additionally, passing the CEJA would help to move Illinois to a future of energy policy set by what is good for the citizens of Illinois, and not the utility companies.
Suzanne Ness submitted the following responses before the March primary:
Please tell us about your civic work in the last two years, whether it’s legislation you have sponsored or work you have done in other ways to improve your community.
I was elected to the McHenry County Board in 2018, having been inspired to run after the 2016 presidential election. I am part of the wave of women stepping up to be leaders in our communities.
In my time on the Board I have worked to improve: staff/board relations, communication with constituents, ensure the preservation of services that protect vulnerable citizens, while also reducing our tax levy, and helping foster a new era of stricter ethical guidelines for local elected officials. I have participated in additional committees to improve Board communications, and a year-long WRAP, (Water Resource Action Plan,) process to ensure the protection of our water supply.
I also founded a non-profit that provides coaching and leadership skills to area teens at a local high school in Carpentersville Ill and I’ve led groups there for the past 4 years. The program helps teens discover ways to develop their own authentic voice and learn to be leaders in their families and their communities. The program includes a mentoring component where the students become mentors to 5th graders from local elementary schools in an effort to encourage young people to pursue education, make better choices, and fill in some of the gaps that exist in young people’s lives. This year almost 60 teens and 80 5th graders will participate.
The school administration as well as the elementary and middle school admnstrations support the program and encourage it’s growth.
Please list three concerns that are specific to your district, such as a project that should be undertaken or a state policy related to an important local issue that should be revised.
The following district concerns are based on what I’ve heard people say at their doors, as well as conversations I’ve had with area business leaders in the community. They are not in any particular order.
1. The district boundary does not have a community college within its borders and there is a skills gap that is widening: employers in the district have jobs that they cannot fill because job candidates do not have the necessary skills. Many of these skills are technical so creating a regional job skills training center could improve the local economy significantly. Some options include creating a regional center with the surrounding communities and partnering with the community colleges to create remote access sites.
2. Transportation and infrastructure. The issue of not having a regional training or vocational center is compounded by not having public transportation options, even though this district has good access to local freeways, there are pockets of the population that rely heavily on public transportation and there are few options so expanding public transportation options would be another concern to address.
3. Someone at a door used the phrase, “patchwork of services” to describe the district and I would agree. The district is made up of many smaller communities and in some places, there is little access to the social services that the County provides for people who need it. While transportation plays a role, there is also an issue of advocacy and ensuring the needs of the 66th are heard. That is not happening currently.
What are your other top legislative priorities?
1. What people have told me at the doors is they want fairness in our tax system, which includes lower property taxes. We’ve done this in McHenry County and now it’s time to provide property tax relief throughout the state. Generating revenue through a graduated tax is one way and having the state fund schools as they are supposed to, is another. Diversifying our tax base is important. Too much is funded from property taxes thus creating higher taxes than other states.
2. Additionally, I’d like to pursue legislation that reduces peoples’ healthcare expenses and skyrocketing out of pocket costs. Capping the cost of insulin for diabetes treatment is one example of how we can do this. Providing measures to keep premiums from increasing is another. As a small business owner, I’d like to be able to offer assist employees with their healthcare benefits, but it’s currently cost prohibitive for me to do so. Other states have worked within the ACA structure to help minimize premium increases and Illinois can as well. This could help companies who provide healthcare, as well as those who get insurance from the ACA marketplace. It could attract companies to our state as employer funded healthcare is a sought-after benefit for most job seekers.
3. Strengthening our educational system from early childhood through higher level education is essential if Illinois is to remain competitive in the future. I have teachers in my family and I have seen first-hand how challenging the job can be. Teaching online for Purdue Global University has also taught me how important it is to have access to education. This includes traditional and nontraditional education. Giving people options that fit their lives is essential, so ensuring that everyone has access to job skills training no matter where they live will be a priority of mine as well.
4. Promoting and providing incentives to increase the use of renewable energy sources particularly in areas that have seen a decline in traditional jobs. Leveraging Illinois’s strengths to create opportunities throughout the state is important.
What is your position on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax? Please explain.
It’s clear that Illinois’ current tax system places an unfair burden on middle-class families. Putting the Fair Tax before voters and allowing them to decide is a great step, but regardless of the outcome there is more work to be done. The single best way to help middle class families is through property tax relief. We have been able to do this for concurrent years in McHenry County by engaging every County department and agency to work towards reduction without loss of services. However, local governments can only go so far (the County portion of our tax bill is 7%). This relief can only come through a state-wide effort.
If the voters decide that a fair tax is right for Illinois, then legislation can work to ensure the that the tax relief is managed fairly, responsibly, and meets our constitutional obligations.
Illinois continues to struggle financially, with a backlog of unpaid bills that tops $6 billion. In addition to a progressive state income tax — or in lieu of such a tax — what should the state do to pay its bills, meet its pension obligations and fund core services such as higher education?
While there are many aspects of government that are different than other businesses, there are many aspects that are the same. As an organizational development specialist, I have seen first-hand how powerful it is to have a vision and a plan to get there. Cutting expenses will only get us so far. We have to also look at the longer- term health of our State and that includes being willing to be innovative, creative, and thoughtful about how we plan our future. Illinois is a great state with many aspects to be proud of. I believe that.
It is also important to balance between cutting expenses and prioritizing spending to ensure vulnerable populations do not lose even more ground as the State of Illinois works towards sustainability.
It’s important to work together, put personal agendas aside, and collaborate on ideas and initiatives so that things like holding budgets hostage, do not happen again, as it put so many people and agencies at further risk.
Government can be forward thinking about clean energy jobs of the future, attracting young families to our state because we have great schools and communities, and continuing to pay down our debts and meet our pension obligations. As a leader this is a message I look forward to bringing with me to Springfield.
Should Illinois consider taxing the retirement incomes of its very wealthiest residents, as most states do? And your argument is?
I do not support a tax on retirement income. People have worked hard for what they have and I want them to be able to stay and retire in Illinois near their families. There are enough other places and opportunities where people pay.
What can Illinois do to improve its elementary and high schools?
15 years ago I moved back to Illinois from a lower tax state because my children were starting school and the public schools where we lived were not adequately funded. My husband Robert and I knew our kids would get a good education if we moved back to Illinois- which they did.
One-way Illinois can improve its elementary and high schools is to continue properly funding schools at the state level under the new funding formula, ensure every student gets a good foundation. This includes making sure there are enough social workers in districts, and other “wrap around” services that are becoming more vital every day. Children spend the majority of their waking hours in the classroom; therefore teachers have become front line safeguards for children’s health and well-being. While that may appear to some as outside the role of teachers, it’s simply that way it is for people in the educational system. Therefore, in the best interest of child welfare, funding those non-traditional services is vital to protecting our children, making sure they are being cared for so they can acquire an education and get the start they deserve.
I learned this first hand when my kids were in school and I volunteered as a reader for kindergarteners who had not been exposed to books and I see it now as a program leader through my foundation at the high school where I host coaching groups. While I would love for all children to be raised in strong families with all the resources children require, this is simply not reality for many families today.
Mass shootings and gun violence plague America. What can or should the Legislature do, if anything, to address this problem in Illinois?
The vast majority of residents, which includes responsible gun owners, support the need for commonsense gun safety laws. This includes universal background checks, closing the ‘gun show’ loophole, and a ban on military-style assault rifles, so weapons of war are not on our streets.
In addition, it’s important we bring law enforcement, medical professionals, educators, and other stakeholders from the community together to address the toxic combination of lax gun laws and mental health: ensuring that guns stay out of the hands of those who pose a risk to themselves and society.
Do you favor or oppose term limits for any elected official in Illinois? Please explain.
Yes, I favor term limits for some positions. McHenry County voters voted for term limits for Board Members which I supported. 3 terms is 12 years and that is something that works for that position. While I support the idea of term limits I think it’s important to ensure that term limits empower voters without creating unintended consequences that lead to less accountability and less transparency. It would be important to understand how limiting terms of certain positions would serve the greater good or impact people choosing to run in the first place.
Everybody says gerrymandering is bad, but the party in power in every state — Democrats in Illinois — resist doing anything about it. Or do we have that wrong? What should be done?
It’s important to say first and foremost that any approach to redistricting must protect minority voters and ensure their voices aren’t disenfranchised or silenced. Many previous efforts to change the way districts are drawn have neglected to include necessary assurances that majority-minority districts will not be diluted by unelected mapmakers. The goal of redistricting should be based on fairness and building public trust. Any process we do undertake in Illinois should include many diverse voices so that the outcome is more likely to be accepted.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago is investigating possible official corruption by state and local officials. This prompted the Legislature to pass an ethics reform measure to amend the Lobbyist Registration Act (SB 1639). It was signed into law in December. What’s your take on this and what more should be done?
Any and all efforts should be made to eliminate conflicts of interest where they occur. The Lobbyist Registration Act amendments are a step in the right direction, however all efforts should be made to eliminate conflicts of interest as people serve in elected positions. I will work to strengthen criminal penalties on politicians who commit egregious acts of misconduct, strip pensions from any politician charged with a felony, and crack down on insider lobbyists who make millions trying to influence government and rig the system for the wealthy and well connected.
When people use the internet and wireless devices, companies collect data about us. Oftentimes, the information is sold to other companies, which can use it to track our movements or invade our privacy in other ways. When companies share this data, we also face a greater risk of identity theft. What should the Legislature do, if anything?
Pro-consumer protections are critical toward putting the middle-class first. I would like to engage in more conversation about how to best regulate how corporations profit off of our personal information and how to hold businesses that collect that data accountable for data breaches.
The number of Illinois public high school graduates who enroll in out-of-state universities continues to climb. What can Illinois do to make its state universities more attractive to Illinois high school students?
There have been some positive steps made in restoring higher education funding, MAP Grant funding, and expanding access to financial aid. As mentioned in earlier statements, funding education should be seen as an investment- it impacts our economy in a negative way when students leave Illinois to attend college in another State so investing to reduce that and grow our economy is a good investment.
Additionally we need to work towards making college education more affordable, and also expanding access to trade schools and vocational education. Additionally, we should continue to make smart investments in elementary and secondary education, expand access to dual credit programs and advanced placement classes so more students are not only prepared for college, but also save some money taking college classes in High School.
What is your top legislative priority with respect to the environment?
It’s important that we continue to enact legislation that not only protects our natural resources, like water, but also transitions us toward cleaner, renewable energy sources. As a County Board Member, I voted to approve 36 solar farm projects in 2019. 6 of those were approved at the State level. Much like creating tax incentives to get people to purchase electric vehicles, the same can be done for developers who install solar hook ups on new homes, or even add in solar farms to their development projects.
We can help ease the burden on farmers by helping them find ways to transition to organic farming as demand for organic ingredients has risen exponentially over the past decade and it can be more profitable. Solar farms are another way to generate income when traditional farming becomes less profitable. Illinois has a lot of farmland and there is much that can be done to help protect the environment and generate revenue.
What historical figure from Illinois, other than Abraham Lincoln (because everybody’s big on Abe), do you most admire or draw inspiration from? Please explain.
Daniel Burnham- the architect who brought the 1893 World Fair to life is someone I admire because of his inspiring vision and belief in the City of Chicago. He was able to bring his vision to life despite tremendous odds, and the work that he did as an early urban planner produced some of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks.
Jane Addams – An advocate for children and families who worked on the local level to fundamentally reshape child welfare, secure women’s right to vote, and strengthen workers’ rights during a time when women were seen as 2nd class citizens.
Barack Obama – Even before he was President, Barack Obama worked to inspire hope and justice in underserved communities. When he started his term as president, he took over in the middle of a financial crisis and he assembled people around him who he worked with, even when they may not have agreed with him politically. He always conducted himself with professionalism and dignity.
Lou Ness- my mom who is an inspiring leader and has always been a champion for the most vulnerable citizens. She helped build an agency that serves women and children who are victims of domestic violence, advocated for homeless families, and taught me the importance of speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. She embodies the “no one gets left behind” motto and instilled it in her children and now her grandchildren.
What’s your favorite TV, streaming or web-based show of all time. Why?
I don’t know if I have a favorite of all time but these are the first ones that come to mind:
Downton Abbey: I love the quality of this show, from the parallels of upstairs life and downstairs life, to the relationships that form as people grow in their lives. The show also expertly portrays how the family changes as the world around this family changes. The culture and values shape and alter the daily predictability of life around them, as well as the lives of the people who live downstairs. The creators paid attention to small details: costumes, sets, language, each moment was thoughtfully recreated in service to the viewer having an enriched relationship with another time and culture.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisle: I love the dialogue and wit of this show. The writing is superb, the characters are interesting, and the storyline is creative and relative to the lives of marginalized people during the years after the war, even as the culture was shifting. I love the humor and I love seeing a woman rise above the status quo and living her own life. Her changes, changes things for everyone around her, challenges ideas and values. The show touches many difficult issues in our present culture and besides all that, I love Midge, her energy, good will towards others, and the zest for pursuing that which she loves.