Chamber meets with lawmakers

State and county lawmakers from Evanston spoke out on issues ranging from cutting health benefits for retired state workers to closing the county courthouse in Skokie at the Evanston Chamber of Commerce annual legislative breakfast this morning at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Chamber and business leaders pose with county and state officials at the breakfast. From left: State Rep. Daniel Biss, Chamber Executive Director Jonathan Perman, Chamber President Steve Hagerty, State Rep. Robyn Gabel, County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, AT&T Illinois President Paul La Schiazza and State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg.

Some highlights from remarks by lawmakers at the session:

Asked about the state supreme court’s decision to keep Rahm Emanuel on the Chicago mayoral ballot, County Commissioner Larry Suffredin said he believes that was the right decision and that the appellate court that knocked Emanuel off the ballot had erred in its decision, because the state has had a clear rule about residency since shortly after the Civil War.

State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg — commenting on a decision by the state court of appeals this week to toss out a state capital spending law — said he believes the legislature should go back to work and reconstruct the financing plan. The court had ruled that the legislation violated a constitutional provision against including legislation dealing with multiple topics in a single bill.

Schoenberg said the video gambling component of the package may end up coming out of the program as it’s reconsidered.

State Rep. Robyn Gabel said she thinks it will be very difficult to put the package back together in the legislature, and she hopes that the state supreme court will overturn the appeals court’s decision.

She says representatives have just spent a couple weeks getting beat up in their home districts over their decision to raise the state income tax — and so more tax provisions will be hard to pass.

State Rep. Daniel Biss said there was no way to fix the state’s budget problems without new revenue, but said lawmakers can’t address the problem on the revenue side alone. He says there will still have to be quite substantial cuts in state spending.

He says just "cutting waste" won’t be sufficient — the state will need to make cuts that are likely to be painful.

Schoenberg called for "a fundamental change in the culture" of Springfield. He says the state’s tax structure relies disproportionately on sales and income taxes.

He said Medicaid and retirement benefits for state workers will have to be trimmed.

He says Julie Hamos — a former state representative from Evanston who is now director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services —  has helped craft a new law that will cut $750 million in Medicaid costs.

Schoenberg said he’s now proposing that state contributions to state retiree health benefits be cut — and means tested so that higher-income retirees pay more for their health coverage.

He says early retirees from the state are going on to have second careers while the state picks up the full tab for their health care.

Schoenberg says the legislature will hire an independent benefits consultant to advise on what the appropriate benefits structure should be.

Biss says it’s a very attractive, common-sense idea and suggests the means testing idea could be expanded to pension benefits.

But he says the obstacle that reform ideas keep running into is the constitutional protection for state worker benefits.

Gabel says there is growing support in the legislature for pension reform. She suggests there will have to be negotiations with the unions to come up with an acceptable solution.

Suffredin says the structure of pensions in Cook County is very different from at the state. He says county pensions are much better funded than the state’s. But county officials will be negotiating with its unions about pension reforms.

He says that as a result of recent changes by the state, new hires in the county sheriff’s department would have to work to age 67 to receive full pension benefits — far longer than local police who, under state law have separate pension plans.

He says the county board president’s new budget to be released Tuesday will include a rollback of the last half percent of the recent sales tax increase.

He says the sheriff is proposing to close the Skokie court house. He says the cost to Evanston of having court sessions moved to the next nearest court house — in Rolling Meadows — would be substantial, so he hopes Evanston residents will oppose it.

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