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'Job not done', says Preckwinkle

Sunday, December 01, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Laura Washington

Toni Preckwinkle inherited enough low-hanging fruit to fill an orchard. Three years into her tenure as Cook County Board president, she is still picking.

Last week I met Preckwinkle for an exclusive chat on the eve of her Dec. 6 anniversary as the county’s chief executive officer.

The Stroger administration was not good at planning, among other things.

Over chicken-and-rice soup, she laid out a meaty list of financial, administrative and policy initiatives. In her first year, she inherited a whopping $487 million deficit. Then and every year since, she has eliminated $100 million-plus budget gaps. The $3.2 billion budget for 2014 includes no new taxes, fees or fines.

Her team has streamlined and professionalized operations, refinanced the county’s massive debt, closed 2,400 positions, with an additional 1,500 county layoffs. While “we tried to be thoughtful,” she added, “that was the hard part, the personnel decisions.”

She applauds Dr. Ramanathan Raju, CEO of the Cook County Health and Hospitals system, who pushed for a waiver to expand the county’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. That reaped $278 million in new federal funds to cover costs for the uninsured and underinsured, and knocked off 64 percent of the deficit.

A half-hour into her recitation, I noted that she hadn’t mentioned what many view as a signature achievement — rolling back Stroger’s controversial 1-cent sales tax hike. “I made a promise that I would reduce the sales tax,” she said, “and I did.”

Keeping that promise made closing the county’s budget gap even harder. She has saved the taxpayers $1.1 billion, but, she noted with that giggle, “What that means is that government was denied $1.1 billion.”

That is especially daunting for a politician who believes big government can do good. Still, fiscal responsibility is her gold standard, and “it also gives you the credibility to tackle the tough issues that in the past may have been either shied away from or ignored just because they’re difficult and complicated.”

That credibility has inspired the anti-Rahm Emanuel camp to beg and plead that she challenge his mayorality in 2015.

She has announced her re-election campaign for board president in 2014. Might she segue to a mayoral run? I asked her. Four times.

The repeated reply: She’s running for re-election. “This is a job that I have signed up for, and it is not done.”

I detect a sliver of wiggle room. Politicians never want to say never.

Preckwinkle remains passionate about reforming the county’s pension and criminal justice systems, and ensuring quality health care for all, just a few of the fruits that remain, and hang high.

Preckwinkle should just keep on picking.

 



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