From the Daily Whale:
By: Tom Butala
In the wake of state lawmakers' bipartisan effort last month to address a $1.6 billion shortfall in the state’s budget for the current fiscal year, Sen. Pamela Althoff (R-McHenry) is looking forward to tackling next year’s budget during the spring legislative session.
The senator said Gov. Bruce Rauner and her fellow legislators must demonstrate they can serve as responsible stewards of the state’s finances to restore Illinoisans’ trust in state government.
“Over the past decade the state of Illinois has obviously eroded people’s trust in government,” Althoff explained. “I believe that what the General Assembly and the governor have to do is to move forward and try to reestablish that trust. You do that through transparency and accountability – two words that are used often but have substantial meaning.”
Althoff has served in the Illinois Senate since 2003. Immediately prior to her time as a senator, Althoff served two years as mayor of the City of McHenry. She was city clerk and collector in McHenry for seven years before moving into the mayor’s office.
A former teacher, Althoff holds a master’s degree in education from Northeastern Illinois University. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in education from Illinois State University in 1975.
A native of Dolton, Illinois and a self-described “outside girl,” Althoff said she values the abundance of open space in her district. In her free time, she enjoys golfing, cross country skiing and walking.
The Daily Whale recently caught up with Althoff to discuss her work in the state Senate during the spring session. An edited version of that conversation follows.
DW: What do you believe is the key to reaching a compromise on the state’s FY2016 budget?
PA: I believe that the governor has … been very clear that he wants to address the fundamental, financial structure of the state of Illinois. Before we can talk about holes or reductions or revenue or any of those issues, we have to go back and look at the overall way Illinois conducts business. Once we have that relatively established – when we eliminate inefficiencies, when we actually address the fact that there may fraud and we do everything we can in our power to reduce that – … then we can get down into the details and into the weeds about how much funding is going to be provided for, specifically, education and higher education and human services and the Department of Corrections and everything else.
DW: What’s been your experience working with the governor thus far?
PA: It’s been very positive. I find him to be an excellent, engaged listener. His follow-up and his follow-through have proven to be effective and instant. He’s a very engaged governor. I am astounded by his level of energy and his ability to meet with as many legislators on a regular basis as he can. That is extraordinarily unusual in my 11 years of serving in the General Assembly, and I admire him for that.
DW: How do you feel about Rauner’s ability to work with President Cullerton and Speaker Madigan?
PA: I think that there’s a mutual respect, which I think is an important quality when you deal with negotiations and you have such large, significant financial issues in front of you. That’s a compliment to Speaker Madigan and President Cullerton as well. I think that they recognize the huge challenge that is in front of us and are willing to sit down and address it in a comprehensive fashion.
DW: What are some of your other priorities for this legislative session?
PA: Well, I’m extraordinarily pleased that we kind of came to a conclusion on grant accountability and transparency. That was an almost four-year endeavor. And when I talk about budget, this is one of those measures. It creates a uniform standard for grant application administration and then reporting. It mirrors the federal template for grant accountability.
And what it will do – currently about 72 percent of the state’s general fund monies go toward these types of grants, whether it’s driven by the state or whether it’s a pass-through from the federal government through the state to providers. … I believe it was the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability that came up with the numbers that 6 percent of an almost $45 billion line item – we cannot attribute where the monies went. Whether it was waste, whether it was fraud, whether it was just misreported, we can’t account.
And so we crafted this … bipartisan [bill]. … We had a task force for almost two years after we crafted this legislation. And again, hopefully it will allow us to be much more accountable to the taxpayer and what we do with their monies. So I’m very much engaged in trying to get that up and running with rules so agencies can follow and have the background and the support that they need to initiate this new program.
The other thing I’m working on that’s still in the hopper, so to speak, is the nurses compact. [It] would allow nurses in the state who are part of this contract – those nurses could be licensed in Iowa and yet go and practice in any of the compact states with their license from Iowa. So if Illinois joined, any nurse that had an Illinois nurses’ license could go and practice under that license in any of the states that are part of the compact.
DW: You’ve held community meetings recently on the topic of school funding reform in Illinois. Tell me about that effort your reform proposal.
PA: It’s an update on what had occurred during last session with Senate Bill 16 – Sen. Manar’s funding reform. … He has resubmitted in [the current] Senate Bill 1 version a few revisions. So the conversation continues, and yet we also have a group of educators who are introducing kind of their idea of education funding reform, which is called “Vision 20/20.”
What Sen. Bush, who is a Democrat senator who is next door to me – 31st District – what we are doing is just providing an update and letting all of our parents and our constituents know exactly how the process is still continuing. Just because Senate Bill 16 did not pass through both chambers, that doesn’t mean the issue is dead. It’s just kind of an informational opportunity.
DW: How would schools in your district fare under Sen. Manar’s proposed reform?
PA: Well, under Senate Bill 1 with Sen. Manar’s request for an additional $500 million to make his plan work, I have more winners than losers. But my losers are really, really big losers. Some of them lose over 50 percent of their state funding. And that’s a huge, huge number. …
Here’s where I stand. I believe that education funding absolutely needs to be reformed. I’m a former school teacher, and we were talking about the inadequacies of Illinois’ funding formula way back when I graduated from college. It was in the 70’s. It’s been a topic for a very, very long time, and I agree with Sen. Manar in that it needs to be addressed and it needs to be corrected as soon as possible. The method that he is currently using, I’m not overly fond of. But he has been extraordinarily open to suggestion and dialogue, and I find that refreshing.
DW: What would you say is your proudest accomplishment from your time in the Legislature?
PA: Obtaining the monies needed for two significant transportation projects in McHenry County – one of them being the Algonquin Bypass and the other the full interchange at Route 47. It was a collaboration with my representative, Michael Tryon at the time, and all of my county board members and my civic leaders and my mayors. The 47th full interchange wasn’t even in McHenry County, it’s in Kane [County], and yet we all understood the importance of that intersection to McHenry County and our economic development.
So making my colleagues, as well as the administration, aware of the importance of McHenry County’s economic activities to the entire state … and then being able to convince them that both of these transportation projects were priorities – not just for our area, but for the state – that’s probably my greatest accomplishment.
DW: What motivated your decision to enter public service following your work as an educator?
PA: I married, and when I moved, I moved into his community, which is here in McHenry. When I did that there were not a lot of openings in education, so I went to work for the local chamber of commerce, and I got much more engaged in the community from that perspective. When the city clerk position became available that’s when I kind of stepped up and got involved in government.
DW: What do you like best about life in McHenry?
PA: It’s green. It’s a community that is very much committed to the preservation of open spaces. I have the wonderful Chain of Lakes, which now I represent almost entirely by myself. Both of my boundaries kind of run from shore to shore. It offers all kinds of recreational opportunities. I’m kind of an outside girl.
We have more golf courses, I believe, in Cary, Illinois … than there are sometimes in entire counties. So we have a lot of opportunities to get outside and be healthy.
DW: You spoke about a fitness-related initiative on the Senate floor prior to spring break. How is that going?
PA: It’s a caucus, and it’s open to anyone who is a member of the General Assembly. They call it a Retrofit Caucus. .... Typically when new legislators come down, they’re going to several receptions in one evening. And of course we’re kind of grazing as we go through those receptions and probably consuming more liquids and beverages than we would at home. So we have created this caucus to try and keep all of us fit.
DW: If you could have lunch with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
PA: Mark Beaubien. Mark Beaubien was a former legislator who had served in leadership in the House. His district, when the redistricting occurred in 2000, bled over into McHenry County. Before that time he was the Lake County legislator solely. I met mark in 2000, and I can’t even begin to tell you the influence and mentoring I was exposed to through his tutelage. [He was] great and brilliant and smart. He was a banker. He was a lawyer. He passed away maybe three years ago. I miss him.