CHICAGO — Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle won't support Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed pension overhaul even though it would give the cash-strapped county many of the retirement reforms it seeks.
Backing Rauner's pension plan would also mean supporting the governor's anti-union measures, Cook's chief financial officer said Tuesday.
"Toni Preckwinkle does not support tying her pension reforms to public unions' ability to collectively bargain," county CFO Ivan Samstein told members of the Illinois Personnel and Pensions Committee.
Cook, home to Chicago and the state's largest county, is facing a $6.5 billion unfunded pension debt that has sparked several downgrades.
Tuesday's committee hearing was the third in a series on Rauner's proposal, which is in legislative form but has not yet been formally introduced into the General Assembly. The sweeping reform package is modeled in part on a proposal from Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and would give Cook, as well as the city of Chicago, some of the reforms that the governments are seeking.
But Rauner has tied many of his so-called turnaround agenda items to the pension overhaul bill, including anti-union measures such as ending collective bargaining. The legislation would also allow local governments to pursue a Chapter 9 restructuring.
Samstein was one of several witnesses, including Chicago Deputy Mayor Steve Koch, who opposed the bill.
"President Preckwinkle has said very clearly publicly that she has concerns about a comprehensive re-write of the Illinois Labor Relations Act," Samstein said. "We are supportive of aspects of the pension bill, but with the material exception of changes to the Illinois Labor Relations Act."
Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Buffalo Grove, who chairs the committee, noted that the legislation allows the county to choose whether to adopt Preckwinkle's own reform proposal or a consideration-based proposal, which would give employees a choice between various benefit cuts in exchange for some perks.
Nekritz said she's never seen anything like a provision giving a local government the option to choose its state statute.
"This is a pretty scary precedent, to be ceding [the General Assembly's] authority to a local government," said Nekritz. "I don't know what the Constitution says anymore, but I think in my view of the Constitution, allowing a local unit to set state statute would not be an appropriate way to proceed."
Cook County has been seeking various legislative pension reforms for nearly two years. Preckwinkle two weeks ago pushed a sales tax increase through the county board to raise money to cover pensions, saying she can't wait for Springfield to act. The tax hike boosts the county's rate to 1.75% from 0.75%, and pushes the Chicago region's overall rate to 10.25%, the highest in the country.
The bulk of the new revenue, estimated at $474 million a year, will go to paying pensions. Preckwinkle has said she will reconsider the tax hike if the state ends up passing meaningful pension reform.