Preckwinkle gets her pension plan past Senate, stops short of calling for higher taxes

May 28, 2014

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wouldn’t rule out higher taxes to help pay for changes to her employees’ retirement benefits in making her pitch to Illinois state senators Tuesday.

Preckwinkle needs the okay from Illinois lawmakers to cut retirement benefits for the county’s pension funds. She estimates that if nothing is done to the retirement benefits, the funds will be tapped dry within 25 years.

“We’re going to be very creative about making government very efficient just as we have for the last three and a half years,” Preckwinkle told a state senate committee in addressing how she plans to pay for the pension changes. “But everything is going to be on the table.”

Preckwinkle has rolled back an unpopular sales tax increase in Cook County since she was elected in 2010.

State senators quickly approved her plan, which was negotiated with some labor groups representing county employees. Those negotiations flipped a handful of state senators who had voted against previous pension benefit-reducing measures for state or City of Chicago employees. State Sen. Toi Hutchinson said she thought the pension bills facing state employees was unconstitutional.

Preckwinkle’s plan still needs approval from the House of Representatives.

It calls for a combination of increased employee contributions beginning in 2015, a phased-in increase in the retirement age, and delays cost of living adjustments for future retirees.

The plan passed with largely Democratic support over the objections of labor groups like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as well as some Republicans.

AFSCME spokesman John Cameron told state senators Preckwinkle should wait to see how a lawsuit over similar changes to state employees pensions turns out before pushing her own pension reform plan.

“The county is not in the dire situation that either the state or the city found themselves. We disagreed with those proposals, but we particularly feel that this is not ready for prime time,” Cameron said.

Meantime, State Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, said he feared Preckwinkle would have to raise property taxes down the road to pay for her plan, unless she were willing to make even deeper cuts to county employees’ retirements. Despite his no vote, Murphy complimented Preckwinkle on her work as board president in a moment of levity during the committee discussion.

“I have enjoyed our working relationship thus far. It is a substantial change from the way things were before you took office,” Murphy said to Preckwinkle, referring to her predecessor, Todd Stroger.

“The bar was pretty low,” Preckwinkle quipped back.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics. Follow him @tonyjarnold.