Unveiled Cook County 2015 budget awaits legislature to address pension crisis

By Holly LaFon

Cook County’s pension debt payments for 2015 total $192 million in the proposed budget and are included under “Personal Services.” Graph from Cook County’s 2015 budget forecast.
Cook County’s pension debt payments for 2015 total $192 million in the proposed budget and are included under “Personal Services.” Graph from Cook County’s 2015 budget forecast.

No solutions to Cook County’s crushing pension obligations appeared in County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s “preliminary budget forecast” released Thursday as she is forced to continue to press the legislature for reform, without which the fund will become insolvent by 2038.

The new budget proposal totals $3.9 billion and seeks no new taxes, fines or fees. Like the city of Chicago, Cook County is prevented by state law from making changes to the pension obligations ravaging county finances. Preckwinkle noted in the budget that she plans for payments to continue at their “current statutory maximum” but she “continues to push for pension reform legislation.” The pension fund is underfunded by $6.5 billion.

Preckwinkle has not decided whether to propose pension reforms in the fall or the 2015 legislative session, her spokeswoman Karen Vaughan said. But, according to Illinois Senate Republicans Director of Communications and Public Affairs Mark Gordon, she will probably delay until spring as lawmakers await the outcome of a state pension lawsuit that may ultimately go to the state Supreme Court.

“There’s a lot of respect for her in the legislature on both sides of the aisle,” Gordon said. “If she brings something, which I imagine she would in the spring, I wouldn’t discount it. It would depend on what her proposal is. The probability that something would come up during the two weeks of the fall veto session would be pretty unlikely.”

Preckwinkle’s earlier attempts to advance pension reform passed the Illinois Senate but were thwarted in the House by GOP opposition. The plan projected that it would have brought county pensions to solvency within 30 years.

Her plan would have raised the age of retirement and cut benefits while retaining health care benefits for workers after retirement.

The lawsuit impeding legislation is a consolidation of suits from several public unions that are challenging the constitutionality of the limited pension reforms passed last spring. The Sangamon County Circuit Court will hear arguments on the case Nov. 20, said Donald Craven, who filed the lawsuit for the Illinois State Employees Association Retirees.