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Legislators Weigh In at Annual Breakfast

Monday, February 09, 2004
Special to
by Sharon Pines

Evanston's legislative team discussed key issues affecting Evanston's economy at the annual regional legislative outlook breakfast hosted by the Evanston Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 28 at the Hilton Gardens Inn.

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, State Representatives Julie Hamos and Elizabeth Coulson and Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (State Senator Jeffrey Schoenberg was absent due to illness) validated Chamber President Jonathan Perman's introduction by demonstrating that they are "passionate and involved, offering great intellect and straight answers."

Congresswoman Schakowsky led off the panel discussion portion of the breakfast meeting by focusing on the Bush Administration's domestic agenda, which she characterized as an attempt "to transform the very assumptions that underpin American democracy." She described his vision of the "ownership society" as "you're on your own, buddy." Rep. Schakowsky, says the Administration's "hard freeze" in non-defense expenditures will result in program budgets equal to last year's with no increase for inflation, leading to major cutbacks in many social programs.

Rep. Schakowsky then focused on Social Security and disputed the Bush Administration's view that there is a crisis.

Characterizing this as "serious over-reaching", she warned that "$50 million dollars will be spent to convince people that there is a crisis, while, in fact, the program will be able to pay 75% of benefits until 2042 or, some say, 2052." The bottom line, says Rep. Schakowsky, is that this debate is "ideological - what is the role of government in people's lives?"

Turning next to major issues in play in Springfield, Representatives Hamos and Coulson underscored the ramifications of the state budget crisis. Rep. Hamos defined the budget crisis as a "structural deficit where a one-year fix is not enough; revenues will not keep pace with expenses."

She laid out the four drivers putting pressure on the state budget: payouts from the public pension systems that will total an estimated $600 million in a year where income growth is calculated to be $325 million; sky-rocketing health care costs (a $1 billion rise over last year); debt payments for capital programs; and education. Rep. Hamos ended her overview by predicting that the budget debate will go overtime and that the political landscape does not favor progressive Democrats and at-risk social programs.

Seconding this gloomy budget scenario, Representative Coulson described how part of the budget problem in Springfield emanates from decisions made in Washington. If the Medicaid budget is frozen at current levels by the federal government, she said, Illinois will be unable to do as has been customary, i.e. fill holes in our budget using these federal dollars. "We are the only state that hasn't cut Medicaid benefits in three years," she stated. "Can this continue?"

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin reminded Chamber members that if Cook County were a state, its $3 billion budget would make it the 18th largest state in the nation, underscoring the importance of the budget battle going on at the Cook County Board. Mr. Suffredin continued the refrain of budget woes in describing the tension on the Board between those proposing bold new initiatives to balance the budget vs. President Stroger's plan to raise the hotel and restaurant tax. Re-defining the supposed "hard freeze" on Cook County hiring as a "soft frost" given recent revelations of large-scale insider hirings, Mr. Suffredin stated that he and others on the Board are trying to "recreate government and figure out our own budget, one that doesn't contain the new hotel and restaurant tax." He described Cook County, under current arrangements, as the second largest funder of the State's Medicaid program, since Stroger Hospital is reimbursed by the federal government and then gives these monies to the state. When this arrangement ends on July 1 of this year, what would replace the dollars going to the State Medicaid program is unclear.

After the panel discussion, the legislators led breakout sessions on a variety of topics: Social Security, State health care issues, public transit funding, Cook County budget reform, health care for small business, State education funding, affordable housing and property taxes.

Congresswoman Schakowsky elaborated on her previous remarks concerning Social Security at her well-attended breakout group, where she took on the issue of free choice in building up Social Security assets. "What are the real choices that let people be entrepreneurial and take risks?" she asked.

"Social Security serves 47 million people and allows them to decide that they don't have to live with their children; that they can be independent and make choices. The program is universal, portable, offers a defined benefit, is life-long and has never missed a payment. Bush's privatization plan does not deal with the issue of long-term solvency."

In a discussion with the audience, Rep. Schakowsky reminded people that Social Security also covers widows and children and the disabled and that the Bush Administration's plan would "increase the number of people on SSI, which is funded by general revenue, thereby shifting the burden to the average taxpayer." In answer to a question concerning what the Evanston business community can do to weigh in on the issue of Social Security, Rep. Schakowsky stated that the business community has real impact and should raise the spectre of the higher local taxes that would be needed to pay for programs previously funded by State and federal monies. "The SBA and loan programs that businesses rely on will be affected," she said. "The business community is concerned about education - these are serious problems that will resonate throughout our community."

Commissioner Suffredin urged those attending his session on property taxes to spend time with state legislators telling them that the property tax system is broken. "Our property tax system is layered and layered so that no one elected official can take responsibility to fix it," he said. "We need to get schools off of property taxes, and we need a tax swap to accomplish this. Our Governor does not believe in a tax swap. But you are seeing the problems. Realtors here see the problems; our kids can't afford to live here and schools suffer."

Mr. Suffredin said he is advocating for a simpler property tax system, one without 39 different classifications, and one that assesses similar properties at similar rates. In the meantime, he urged individuals to be aggressive about appealing their tax assessments and in pointing out anomalies in their neighborhoods. In the context of how taxes can hurt communities, he once again referred to President Stroger's proposed increase in the hotel and restaurant tax and stated, "all these taxes are sinking this community."

The Commissioner ended his breakout session with words that could be used to describe all of Evanston's legislative luminaries. He quoted the late Congressman Sid Yates who said "representing this area is the most freeing thing for any public official, because you're expected to do what's right."

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