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When Preckwinkle goes too far and Evans not far enough

Wednesday, December 06, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

The Cook County soda tax expired Dec. 1, but the political fight surrounding it did not. Top county officials have intensified the drama with a court fight that could result in lasting implications for government budgets. Grab the popcorn, taxpayers.

Chief Circuit Judge Timothy Evans is suing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, saying she overstepped her authority while reducing his budget for 2018. Without the soda tax, Preckwinkle and the 17-member board last month downsized county spending by about $200 million.

At issue is whether they went too far in both the magnitude of the reductions in Evans’ office and the targeted nature of them. Preckwinkle’s budget team eliminated specific positions in Evans’ office instead of letting him figure out where to trim. Was it too much meddling? A judge made an initial ruling in Evans’ favor on Tuesday, halting for now 155 job cuts in his domain.

It might seem like a minor squabble, but the question gets raised at many levels of government: How deeply can an executive reach into the budgets and operations of separately elected government officials? Evans is chief judge because his fellow judges elected him. Other than determining his annual budget, Preckwinkle and the board do not oversee his office. Complicating the case, the courts are a branch of state government.

Rod Blagojevich, for example, abated some of his veto voracity in his first term as governor after slashing spending in Secretary of State Jesse White’s budget. At the time, White’s bloated budget included a team of 17 carpenters whose primary responsibilities included building picture frames and furniture for White’s offices.

But White, independently elected by voters, howled at the overreach. Blagojevich retreated. White got to keep his carpenters.

A similar argument is unfolding in Evans’ case. Even though Preckwinkle and the board hold the purse strings, can they dictate with precision how the money is spent in offices such as chief judge, sheriff, county clerk and assessor?

We tend to agree with the judge’s decision on Tuesday. Bosses deserve leeway to run their offices. It makes sense that Preckwinkle and the County Board determine a budget and yes, a reduced one, for Evans — and then step back while he implements the cuts.

But complicating this scenario is Evans’ notorious reluctance to take ownership of budget realities. He doesn’t want to lay off anyone. He didn’t have a workable game plan for reducing expenses. He wanted to implement furlough days for his workers rather than lose them. But he didn’t get buy-in from the unions that represent his employees. So he came to the budget-cutting exercise with no agreement on mandated, unpaid time off. So what was Preckwinkle supposed to do? Keep waiting on the foot-dragging Evans?

We’ve said before that all the unions that represent Cook County workers could have been flexible, given the loss of the soda tax revenue. But some weren’t. They rarely are. They argued against furlough days. They wanted the county to find the $200 million, like magic.

But it doesn’t work that way. Evans and other office-holders should be forced to do more with less. That’s what taxpayers bargained for in rebelling against the soda tax: Stop digging into our pockets and figure out how to run county government more efficiently, which surely means with fewer people.

Yes, Preckwinkle probably overstepped. Yes, Evans probably forced her hand.

Now, can they work it out without dragging their fight through the court system at taxpayer expense? That would be the most logical solution for all sides. But we won’t hold our breath.

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

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