On Feb. 13, Brandon Johnson appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for Cook County commissioner in the 1st District in the March 2018 primary:
Hi, my name is Brandon Johnson, I’m a public school teacher, teaching in the Chicago Public Schools. I’ve been an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union the last few years. My top priorities as Cook County commissioner would be 1, to generate the necessary revenue to fund the necessary services that people rely on. Like health care services. Creating opportunities for folks to work. Those would be my top priorities as Cook County commissioner. Well, the big thing for implementation of these priorities is making sure we’re actually taxing the entities and the people who have the most ability to pay. Right? So we have to tax these large corporations that have just received a tax break from Donald Trump. These large corporations that are making so much money, they’re buying their own stock. So it’s through those revenues that we’re going to implement the necessary medical services that hundreds and thousands of families rely on across Cook County.
The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates running for Cook County commissioner in the 1st District a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the Chicago area. Brandon Johnson submitted the following responses to our questionnaire:
QUESTION: The County Board enacted and then repealed a tax on sweetened beverages, then made further cuts to the budget. Can county government now claim an appropriate balance of revenue and services, or will more revenue or more cost-cutting be necessary? Please be specific as to where new revenue might come from, or where further cuts could be made.
ANSWER: As a home-rule municipality, Cook County has revenue options for addressing its budget challenges. One would be to tax corporations via a county head tax. This proposal could be structured to incentivize hiring of Cook County residents from areas of high unemployment rather than those from outside the county. Any such tax must not include an opt-out clause.
Furthermore, tax incentive packages can be improved to better protect Cook residents’ interests. For example, the County has already created conditions on incentives – if a company received the benefit it has to use county’s workforce development non-profit. Additional conditions could be added, such as if promised job targets are missed, County tax incentives could be revoked. The key is enforcement.
Finally, as a Cook County Commissioner, I will be an aggressive advocate for a timely budget, progressive taxation and equitable school funding at the state level since the State of Illinois owes the County large amounts of money for essential services, and the State’s inadequate education funding puts significant pressure on local property taxes.
Running for: Democratic nomination for Cook County commissioner in the 1st District.
Political/civic background: Political Organizer, Chicago Teachers Union
Education: B.A. in Human Services, Youth Development Programming and Management, M.A. in Teaching from Aurora University
Campaign website: https://brandonforcookcounty.com
QUESTION: If the Affordable Care Act is eliminated or curtailed, what would you propose doing to keep the county’s Health and Hospitals System on sound financial footing?
ANSWER: Growing up in a working class family, I relied upon the county hospital to fill my inhaler prescription to treat my asthma. Without that care, I would not have been able to flourish in school or sports, or attend college on an athletic scholarship.
On the other hand, my family also knows the devastating consequences of being uninsured. My father lost his state job and our health insurance during the period in which my mother was suffering from a rare heart disease, and her inability to receive adequate care ultimately contributed to her passing.
It is these dual experiences that shape my commitment to ensuring that the county’s Health and Hospitals System remain high-quality, accessible and affordable, while offering a wide range of services including and especially mental health services. It is also important that County Care remain a high-quality low-cost insurance option for families receiving Medicaid and other subsidies through the Affordable Care Act. The Trump Administration and its allies in Congress have declared open war on Medicaid funding. Meanwhile, the elimination of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate via the GOP’s regressive tax legislation will ultimately cause millions currently receiving subsidies to forgo insurance altogether. This in turn will threaten County Care which has been a success for patients and all county taxpayers under the Affordable Care Act.
We need a County Board that will stand up to the Trump administration by pressuring the state to pick up some services and finding alternative revenue sources to keep these critical programs running in the case of any cuts. As a County Commissioner, I will advocate for creative progressive revenue solutions like those I described above, to ensure that the County meets its fundamental obligation of supporting the health, wellness and productivity of its residents. Healthcare is a human right. If the federal government will not secure that right, Cook County must.
QUESTION: What county functions or services would you support privatizing, if any, to reduce costs?
ANSWER: I do not support privatization, as in many instances privatization actually costs the county more money.
QUESTION: The state of Illinois is behind on paying money it owes to Cook County. What’s to be done about that?
ANSWER: The State’s late payment cycle is a direct result of the Rauner administration’s budget crisis strategy. The lack of a state budget delayed payments to municipalities, school districts, social service providers, and the State’s vendors. The best solution is additional revenue at the state level to ensure there are sufficient funds to pay the bills including funds owed to local governments like Cook County. However, in the absence of responsible management by the state, the County must be prepared to continue funding essential government services without overburdening those least able to pay.
QUESTION: What is your position on tax-increment financing districts? Are they a valuable development tool? Are they underutilized? Is the process sufficiently transparent? Should there be more community input? Should the definition of a “blighted” area be revised?
ANSWER: TIF districts have been warped from their original purpose of development in blighted areas that would otherwise see no development. Instead, TIF has been used in affluent areas, especially in the city, to drive tax dollars to corporations and developers in areas they deem desirable. As a result, revenue that would otherwise go to local governments like Cook County have been diverted to projects like Navy Pier. I support the work of Representative Sonya Harper on this question. Last spring, she passed HB 3720, a bill that included an important provision to increase TIF transparency and reporting, through the Illinois House with bi-partisan support. This is a good starting point for TIF reform. The County Board can also ask the Bureau of Economic Development to advise municipalities on the utility of any proposed TIF.
Finally, in moments of fiscal crisis, I believe it is imperative that un-used and unnecessary TIF dollars be returned to taxing bodies to fund schools, public safety and health services. As a political organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, I helped lead the fight over the last several years to return over $300 million from particularly wasteful Chicago TIF districts to the original taxing bodies, including over $160 million to Chicago Public Schools to prevent school closures, teacher layoffs, and programming cuts. Tens of millions also were returned to Cook County and its agencies.
As Commissioner for the 1st District, I will continue this advocacy to ensure that subsidies for billionaire developers never take priority over essential public accommodations for all of the county’s residents.
QUESTION: Recently, there have been calls to freeze local property taxes. What’s your view on the matter?
ANSWER: High property taxes in Illinois are the result of decades of insufficient state support for education. The new state school funding formula includes provisions that help to check local property taxes, the main one being significant additional revenue from the state for education. The version of a property tax freeze pushed by Governor Rauner was designed to attack organized labor, not to promote good government. If he really wanted to support local government, he would not have held the state budget hostage and would not have vetoed new funding for education. Property tax freezes deny local governments like Cook County important tools to manage their budgets.
QUESTION: Do you support or oppose efforts to merge unincorporated pockets of the county into adjoining municipalities? If so, how would you make that happen?
ANSWER: Currently, Cook County spends significant resources on the provision of services, such as building/zoning permits and inspections and the provision of police patrol services, to the roughly two percent of the County that is unincorporated. These services represent the types of services that the 98% of County residents who live in municipalities receive from their local municipal government.
The revenues generated from unincorporated areas do not fully cover the costs and the financial gap that remains must be covered by general County revenues, which are paid by incorporated and unincorporated residents alike. Recently, the Civic Federation put this gap at roughly $18 million annually. This is money that could be allocated to the County’s primary functions.
While I support the annexation of unincorporated areas, I’m also very aware of the complexity of this undertaking. In particular, the challenge of infrastructure this presents given the wide range of geography, size and socio-economic make up of unincorporated areas. We also have to ensure the effective transition of public safety services, which the Sheriff currently provides for these areas.
I commit to working with the county’s Taskforce and the relevant municipalities to address remaining infrastructure needs.
QUESTION: What is your plan to encourage economic development in the county?
ANSWER: I will work directly with the Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership (the Partnership) to help connect the 1st District’s unemployed and underemployed, particularly young people, find opportunities in high demand sectors in our economy. Across the country and the county, there is a growing disconnect between sectors that are experiencing steady high-growth, high-demand and areas, such as the 1st District, which are struggling with unemployment. In particular, I will focus on young people with barriers to employment, including a record, pregnancy, poverty, etc. At the same time, this helps support and encourage the key industries and sectors in our local economy by providing them with access to a new, growing workforce, which countless reports have shown to be a key indicator for a business locating to and/or staying within an area. The involvement of the Partnership relieves local businesses from the necessities of recruitment, screening, and other personnel skills with which they may not be equipped.
In turn, I will work with the 1st District’s businesses directly not only to better understand their challenges and concerns, but to raise awareness of opportunities within the County, such as within the Bureau of Economic Development or the Partnership.
I commit to active involvement in the county’s regional economic development initiative. I want to make sure that as we talk about the region’s economic strategy the 1st District has a seat at the table.
QUESTION: An additional $40 million per year is needed to fund the Forest Preserve District’s Next Century Conservation Plan. Where can the county find the money?
ANSWER: We need to continue to increase volunteer efforts, pursue new grant opportunities and generate new partnerships to help FPDCC continue its momentum in executing the Next Century Conservation Plan. In particular, partnerships remain a critical component to the Forest Preserves success. I would look to the Forest Preserve’s executive team and its foundation to identify new fundraising opportunities.
We should also look at further promotion of our new, existing amenities and attractions.
Since the implementation of the Next Century Conservation Plan in 2015, Cook County has made significant improvements in to the Forest Preserves, including new campgrounds, new recreational activities (such as the climbing wall at Camp Sullivan and the adventure course and zip lines at Bemis Woods), and significant improvements to trails, signage and visitor centers. Without a doubt, the Forest Preserves have become premier destinations for locals and tourists alike. My initial focus will be effectively promoting these opportunities as such, thereby deriving revenue from existing fees and services.
QUESTION: Traditionally, the Forest Preserve District has not charged for parking in the preserves, but it is considering doing so at Swallow Cliff Woods. Do you support that?
ANSWER: Not at this time. I applaud the Forest Preserve’s recent improvements at Swallow Cliff Woods but I would need additional information on the proposed fee and the need for cost recovery. I would also want to make sure we have explored all potential partnerships or fundraising opportunities to make up the shortfall.
QUESTION: Should the Forest Preserve District have its own board, independent of the County Board? Please explain.
ANSWER: No. Given the county’s fiscal challenges, it would be imprudent to create another board, especially at the same time front line county employees are being terminated. The County Board is fully equipped to oversee the Forest Preserve District and should continue to do so.
QUESTION: Is Cook County treated fairly by the state? If not, how so?
ANSWER: Cook County is home to more than five million people. It is the state’s economic, educational, and cultural engine. The vast majority of job growth, tourism, and international exchange occurs in Cook County. It is thus in both the State’s and the County’s interest to work together. To this end, however, there have been significant challenges. First, Cook County is a net tax exporter to the rest of the state, via support for big state universities and prisons, for instance. It is thus a serious issue when the State is behind in making required payments to the County that then force unnecessary service provision choices. Moreover, the downstate vs. Chicago political point-scoring is counterproductive. The Governor loves to point to Illinois and Cook County’s problems, but he fails to note the state’s significant assets like plentiful natural resources and dense transportation infrastructure. Blaming Chicago for Illinois’ problems is nothing more than coded racial language. At the same time, treating “downstate” as if it’s one monolithic region is equally problematic. The reality is that the challenges of poverty, unemployment, and English learners in schools are no longer limited just to Cook County. My work on the County Board will include leveraging my relationships with people around the State to forge partnerships and cooperation, not continued competition for artificially scarce resources.
QUESTION: Do you support another effort in the Legislature to reform the county’s pension system?
ANSWER: There is little appetite in the Legislature for additional reform at this time and the county has made efforts to stabilize its pension obligations.
QUESTION: Please name any relatives who hold a county job. What’s your general view on elected officials hiring relatives?
ANSWER: None. Elected officials should hire the most qualified person for any job in accordance with the laws governing said hiring. The ethics of government hiring must be beyond reproach if we are to maintain the public trust.