It is without question that an increase in Cook County’s portion of the sales tax is the most fiscally responsible way to address Cook County’s pension crisis.
The argument that the county should cut its budget instead of raising taxes is a reasonable one, and one that I made when I ran for commissioner in 2010. At the time the county budget was bloated with patronage hires and crony contracts while still failing to deliver adequate services to our residents. Prior administrations taxed and spent with impunity and deserved the scathing criticism they received.
But times have changed. Since 2010, under the reform leadership of President Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County government is smaller than ever, more efficient than ever and delivering high quality services. Each year we have cut taxes while also reducing the number of employees. Despite our cost cutting, we have still been able to invest in infrastructure, improve roads and bridges, develop a plan for economic development and bring reform to our criminal justice and healthcare systems. The taxpayers expected us to eliminate unnecessary employees, bad contracts, inefficiency, and bad services. We did that by being tough on ourselves and tightening our belts. We will continue to do so.
There is a single reason for increasing the county’s portion of the sales tax after such monumental success: pensions. The Cook County pension problem is so extreme that it can only be solved through a pension reform bill or by increasing the county’s funding of the pension fund. Unlike other governments whose pensions are underfunded because of failures to contribute, Cook County’s pension is underfunded because state law caps the amount of the contribution, and even though the county has always paid the max, it is mathematically impossible to fully fund the pension under the cap. It is like a law that does not allow you pay off your credit card every month; your debt would increase not because you would not pay, but because you could not pay.
To address this problem, President Preckwinkle went to Springfield to pass a pension reform that would allow us to honor our obligations to our retirees while not increasing taxes. The General Assembly didn’t pass our bill. So President Preckwinkle went back and tried harder to get it passed. But this spring the state Supreme Court ruled that any pension reform would be unconstitutional. I believe the only option that governments have is to fully fund the pensions. To fully fund the pension, Cook County needs to increase its contribution to the fund by over $400 million each year.
With pension reform off the table, Cook County must pay into the pension fund the amount necessary to cover our constitutionally required pension obligations. Since there is not $400 million in the budget to cut, the only way to pay that amount into the pension fund is to raise taxes.
President Preckwinkle and I support a sales tax increase because it is the fairest tax. All of us pay sales tax: from the wealthiest to the poorest, from Lynwood to Barrington. I ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility which means cutting where we can and seeking revenue only when we must. Right now we must.
Democrat Jeffrey R. Tobolski is the Cook County Commissioner for the 16thDistrict, which includes parts of Chicago and the near West suburbs.