Dale Risinger is an Illinois State Senator, representing the 37th District. Risinger is currently the Republican spokesman for the Senate State Government Operations Committee, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, and a member of the Senate Financial Institutions Committee. He also serves on the Legislative Research Unit, the Council on Aging, and the Legislative Audit Commission.
Risinger graduated from the University of Illinois. He worked as an engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation and was formerly vice president of business development for Clark Engineers, Inc.
Risinger is a member and past chairman of the advisory board for the Bradley University College of Engineering and Technology. He's also a member of the Easter Seals Board, University of Illinois Alumni Association, Peoria Traffic Commission, Illinois Society of Professional Engineers, Illinois Association of Highway Engineers, National Society of Professional Engineers, Illinois Public Works Association, Rotary International, and is a Christmas in April volunteer.
Risinger and his wife, Joyce, have three adult children.
Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I was born and raised in a small town in southern Illinois. Odin, population 1,000, is located on Route 50, about 60 miles East of St. Louis. My parents owned and operated a small grocery store on Main Street where my three sisters, brother, and I worked after school and on weekends.
After graduating from high school in 1962, I attended Centralia Junior College-now Kaskaskia College. I continued my education at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign and graduated with a degree in civil engineering. During this time, I married my high school sweetheart, Joyce.
We've been married for 40 years and are parents to three grown children: Brad, Lana, and Chad. We are grandparents to one grandson, Garrit.
Tell us about your positions with the Illinois Department of Transportation and Clark Engineers.
I worked for the Illinois Department of Transportation during the summers while attending college, and after graduating, I continued with them for 35 years. Most of my career with IDOT was spent in District #7, headquartered in Effingham. I worked on many construction projects as a resident engineer and was promoted to assistant district engineer.
In 1988, I came to Peoria as district engineer for the nine counties that make up District #4. As district engineer, I was responsible for all the highway operations in the district including maintenance, traffic signals, planning, construction, and snow and ice control. We had an operation budget of more than $30 million and a capital budget of more than $100 million. I retired from that position in 1999.
After retiring from IDOT at age 55, I accepted a position with Clark Engineers as vice president of business development. I continued with Clark Engineers until January of this year, leaving to give my full attention to the Senate. Working for Clark taught me what it's like to work in the private sector, as opposed to government. It was a valuable experience I carry with me in my work as a state senator.
What projects did you work on with IDOT that were most memorable?
Just before I graduated from college, the U.S. embarked on a massive highway construction project. That, of course, was the construction of the interstate highway system. As a young engineer, it was my privilege to work on that system, including Interstates 57, 70, and 64. It was both challenging and fulfilling to be involved with the planning, design, surveying, and building of highways that now represent the best transportation system in the world.
When I came to Peoria in 1988, the priority was to connect Peoria to Springfield with Interstate 155. Millions of dollars in road contracts were completed, and people soon forgot how bad the drive to Springfield used to be.
Pressed by the Federal Highway Administration to improve safety, IDOT began planning for the improvements to I-74 through Peoria. When we started the project planning, we didn't know if it would even be possible to build the required additional lanes within the existing right-of-way. It took some very talented engineers and hundreds of meetings with the public and city officials before the final planning phase was completed.
In 1993, the Mississippi River flooded, and IDOT was called upon to provide materials, do sandbagging, and provide other services along the Mississippi River. Secretary of Transportation Kirk Brown and I traveled along the river visiting with mayors and officials, offering help. Kirk Brown told the mayors if they needed help day or night, just call. Then he handed them a card with my home and business numbers. It was a good feeling to provide help for those in need.
What misperceptions, if any, does the general public have in regard to transportation? Building and repair of roads, funding for those, length of time, etc.
The general public is better informed today about transportation issues than in the past. The public wants to get in their cars and go and not be surprised or have their trip interrupted. More than ever before, IDOT spends a greater percentage of the project cost on traffic control through the work zone, as safety for the workers has become a major concern. Often, people observing the project comment on why the work seems to progress slower than they think it should. Project construction is planned and monitored through a critical path process that tells the construction management team which items need to be worked on next and what equipment and workers need to be working to get the work done efficiently and on time. A lot of things can and sometimes do go wrong. Materials and their timely delivery are very important, since all materials on a state project must be inspected by state inspectors or certified, before or after they arrive on the job site, to make sure the public gets what it's paying for. Lack of adequate state inspectors, strikes, or slowdown at plants or mills where the materials are produced can have a negative effect on the project schedule. Sometimes, shortages of materials such as cement, fuel, and asphalt can slow down the project. The weather can be another issue.
Large projects like the I-74 Upgrade take many years of planning and preliminary work before construction can begin. The people who want the project to get moving say the process takes too long, and the people who don't want the project say we don't take enough time. Over the last several years, IDOT has improved in keeping the public informed and has done an exceptional job on the I-74 project.
Who or what influenced you to campaign for Senate?
The answer to that is David, Joyce, and Sandy.
Entering the world of politics isn't something I ever aspired to or even thought about. Engineering and politics are just about as far apart as you can get. State Sen. Carl Hawkinson announced he'd be running for Lt. Governor, which opened the 37th District seat. David Leitch asked me to consider a run for it. This was on a Friday. My first reaction was to laugh and say, "You must be kidding me." I went home and told Joyce, and after much discussion, I called David on Monday morning and said, "Let's go for it." My next call was to Sandy Moldovan at Clark Engineers to tell him what I'd done. Sandy assured me he was 100 percent supportive of my decision. David and his staff guided me through this process, and I hired a campaign manager. As they say, the rest is history.
What's surprised you the most about public office?
I've been unpleasantly surprised at how the political party in the majority controls the legislative process. The last two days of May is when the budget bills are usually passed. In the two years I've been in the Senate, the Democrats have shut down debate and not allowed Republicans to speak on the bills that will generate revenue and spending for more than $53 billion. The president of the Senate has the power to limit debate on such important issues. I believe the minority party and the thousands of people they represent-I represent more than 215,000-should have a voice. This is why it's so important to both parties to be in the majority. A balance of power is very important for the legislative process to work effectively.
When you were campaigning, the contest turned negative and was billed as one of the most expensive in the state. Is it possible to run a positive campaign and win?
The majority of the people will tell you they don't want to see negative campaigns. The problem with campaigns is opponents are always going to put a negative spin on the other person's record. This leads to candidates crying foul and responding. The people who say they don't want to see negative campaigns, according to the polls, are still swayed by them. The nature of an election is to point out the shortcomings of your opponent and show how you're more qualified and can do a better job for the people. We live in a country that allows free speech, so candidates don't always have control of the ads being placed both for and against them. In my race, an organization that wanted me to win sent out a mailer in the last days of the election that I thought was in very bad taste, but I was unaware of it being sent until after the election. I wouldn't have been able to stop the mailing even if I had known it was being sent.
Meeting each citizen and talking to them face to face is the ideal for any campaign, but the size of legislative districts makes that difficult. Many candidates have to supplement their door-to-door, one-on-one handshaking efforts and public appearances with television and direct mail advertising, and this is when things get expensive. But a candidate owes it to the voters to get his message out, and direct mail and television are the most efficient means of helping people make informed decisions when they go to vote.
It's always best to set a positive campaign. Candidates should talk about the issues important to their constituents-not reduce themselves to personal charges. I think the negative campaigns stop a lot of good people from running for office. They don't want to subject themselves and their families to the mud that can be thrown at them. Is it possible to run a positive campaign and win? The answer is yes, but both candidates need to play by the same rules.
As a Senator, what do you do on a day-to-day basis? How do you balance personal time with the needs of those you represent?
When the Senate is in session, my time is spent in committee meetings; hearing and debating bills on the Senate floor; and responding to letters, phone calls, and e-mails from constituents. I'm the minority spokes-person for the State Government Operations Committee. I also serve on the Transportation and Financial Institutions committees. I'm a board member for the Legislative Research Unit, the Legislative Audit Commission, and represent the Illinois Senate Republicans on Transportation Issues with the National Conference of State Legislatures. When not in Springfield, I meet with citizens or elected officials of the 37th District who have issues with the State. The 37th District covers seven counties, so I spend time traveling to all parts of the district, meeting with groups and giving updates on legislation. I give interviews to the media and write articles for newspapers and magazines. Because of my IDOT and engineering background, I'm asked to speak to groups throughout the state. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, I participate in parades, festivals, and fairs. I also have offices with staff in Galesburg and Princeton, as well as Peoria and Springfield.
Balancing personal time isn't an easy task but a very important one. My wife, Joyce, helps in many ways and also does my scheduling. She reserves personal and family time as needed.
You've been passionate about health care tort reform and equitable funding for public education. What progress has been made on these issues?
We are continuing to discuss the issue of health care tort reform. The Democrats have taken many issues, like caps on non-economic damages and a separate medical malpractice court, off the table. The Senate did pass House Bill 4847, which contained a starting point for reforms such as protecting physicians' assets and reducing frivolous lawsuits. The House refused to call this legislation to a vote, and there are negotiations continuing through this extended legislative session. We hope to have meaningful reform before adjournment, but the special interest groups continue to be obstructionists to true tort reform that will rein in excessive verdicts and frivolous lawsuits.
The governor set the tone on public education funding for this legislative session during his State of the State address by speaking, almost exclusively, on the topic of "reforming" education and the subsequent release of his Education Reform Plan. This plan was full of ideas-changing governance of the State Board of Education, the Book of the Month Club, nutrition programs, and disallowing certain vending machines in schools-but was lacking in detail. Many legislators from the Senate Republican Caucus, as well as the other three caucuses, were concerned about the more pressing needs of Illinois' educational system-school funding. The governor, however, said he wouldn't deal with those issues until the General Assembly gave him permission to "reorganize" and take control of a new Department of Education. Hence, no change was made to the current school funding formula-with the exception of increasing the foundation level by $250-House Bill 4266.
During the summer months, the general assembly will hold committee hearings around the state on HB750 and Senate Amendments #1 and #2 that will deal with education funding reform. We're trying to get bipartisan and public support for legislation that can be passed next fall or in the spring.
There've been many concerns with No Child Left Behind. What steps can be taken to improve this policy in our educational system?
There have been many concerns; however, please realize that this bill allows the states until the 2013-2014 school year to comply with the requirement of each child meeting state standards in reading and mathematics-a superlative goal for our children.
With that said, I believe with any new program there will be kinks and issues to be worked out during early implementation. One of the major problems schools were grappling with was the issue of subgroups and participation in testing. As you probably already know, No Child Left Behind requires all students to participate in a state's test, although a school can make "adequate yearly progress" if at least 95 percent of students, measured by total school population and by subgroup, participate in a state's annual assessment of student achievement.
After much hand-wringing by the states, the federal government issued a new policy in March that allows a state to use data from the previous one or two years to average the participation rate data for a school and/or subgroup as needed. If this two- or three-year average meets or exceeds 95 percent, the school will meet this AYP requirement. Schools performing well in this category may not be unduly identified as in need of improvement because of a one- or two-year dip in their participation rates. Hopefully, this exchange of ideas between the states and the Feds will continue to produce meaningful results such as this. Thus, the states will be able to eventually meet the goals set upon them by the federal government.
You voted against Senate Bill 3000, saying the governor wants to control the State Board of Education. Can you expound on that?
First, the biggest philosophical problem with creating a Department of Education is that the Constitutional Convention created an independent, non-partisan state agency to govern education in Illinois. A Department of Education would be under the control of the governor, and, therefore, wouldn't be independent nor non-partisan. In addition, with all of the current nine State Board of Education members being removed July 1, continuity will be lost. All institutional knowledge will be lost. Issues arose regarding how the governor could remove a board member at will. Finally, current law states a majority of those members appointed, confirmed, and serving on the board are required to approve any action. This language takes out "confirmed and serving." Hence, the governor could appoint nine people July 1, they could act on a multitude of issues, and could be removed before the Senate can confirm these members in the Veto Session.
There are many other problems with Senate Bill 3000 as well. In general, much of the bill's language is non-specific when it comes to describing all of the new programs it creates-much of the detail is left to the rule-making process. For example, the new Shared Service Centers-a concept that already exists in practice-would supposedly allow ISBE, in partnership with regional superintendents, to create shared service centers for districts, which would be used to create pools for shared services that would allow schools to save money. However, the language doesn't say that. In addition, the new Education Purchasing Program could've been an administrative nightmare for school districts to have to implement. In addition, school districts could already and actually do participate in such pools. Others also were concerned about why a prescription drug program was inserted into this bill. The problems with this bill are too numerous to mention here.
You maintain you're an engineer and problem solver first, not a born politician. How would you encourage others to run for public office?
We need a good mix of backgrounds in the General Assembly. This creates a healthy debate on issues. It's good to have people who've worked outside the Capitol and have first-hand knowledge of the problems we're trying to solve or correct. Don't believe for a minute that you have to be a lawyer to be a good representative of the people. What you have to be is available to the people and willing to work hard on issues that are important to the citizens of your district. It's very rewarding when you can help someone trying to work through the maze of government regulations.
You're a member of the Transportation Committee. Can you update readers on the I-74 project? 336 Coalition? Ring Road and/or a direct route to Chicago?
Projects like I-74, 336, and the Ring Road take a long time to do all the preliminary planning before any construction can be done. I-74 is well on its way. Overpasses have been worked on, and side streets and ramps are being completed to prepare for work on the mainline of I-74 work next year. In 2005, I-74 will be closed from the Illinois River to the hospitals to remove a portion of the truss on the Murray Baker Bridge and reconstruct the downtown portion of I-74. Traffic will be detoured across the Bob Michel Bridge to get through downtown Peoria. I believe IDOT has done an excellent job of keeping the public informed as the work progresses. The District Engineer, Joe Crowe, Jr., and his staff should be commended for the attention they've given to commuters and the businesses.
To build Route 336 and the Ring Road, large amounts of money are required from the federal gas tax. I'd expect that we'll receive enough money from this six-year federal bill for these projects to only get started. The present governor has diverted millions of dollars from the road fund for everyday operations of state government, and this will also cause funding problems for projects such as these to move forward.
Our Air Guard bases in Peoria and Springfield are critical to our healthy economies. Can you update us on BRAC?
Congressman Ray LaHood and all of our elected officials, along with the business community, are working in a coordinated effort to prevent our bases in Peoria and Springfield from ending up on the Defense Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list scheduled to be announced next year. Consulting firm Holland and Knight has been hired to represent our bases. A meeting was held recently in Washington D.C. with the Illinois Congressional delegation to discuss our course of action. The Peoria Air National Guard base contributes more than $50 million into the local economy, and contracts with more than 300 local businesses. We'll do everything we can to protect the jobs and revenue our bases bring to our state and region.
What's been your greatest challenge as a Senator? Your greatest accomplishment?
The partisan nature of the process and the hours spent waiting while political jockeying and one-upmanship are aggravating. When I worked as an engineer, my days were filled with logic and analytical thinking. Now we're forced to vote on bills we haven't had time to read. That's wrong and a disservice to the people we represent. Goals are achieved by working together. Unfortunately, the Senate Democrat leaders aren't allowing a full debate on important bills, going so far as to cut off the microphones of several senators who have concerns and questions about the budget or other issues. Each Illinois State Senator represents the interests of his or her constituents and must be allowed to speak on their behalf. We're part of a democracy and shouldn't sully it with such power plays.
My greatest accomplishment is being accessible for the citizens of the 37th District. I represent them in the State Senate, and I do everything I can to bring their ideas and concerns to the table. When the legislative process isn't interrupted by egos and political antics, it's a process of which we can all be proud. Being a State Senator is an honor I appreciate every day.
What are your future plans?
I have just over two years left to serve in my first term in the Senate. I'm a full-time Senator and devote my energies to serving the needs of my district. In hopes of someday serving in the majority and setting the legislative agenda, I'm working to help elect new Republican senators around the state. It's my intention to run again for the Senate when my present term expires. IBI