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Preckwinkle is pessimistic on state budget deal

  • Written by Joe Boyle

Gov. Rauner said he is “excited” about the prospect of an agreement being reached on the budget deadlock that is now in its 11th month.

But don’t count Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as someone who is sharing the governor’s optimism.

“My lobbyist in Springfield has told me that nothing is going to get done (by May 31),” said Preckwinkle, after addressing members of the Cook County Suburban Publishers Association Friday afternoon at the Renaissance Chicago Downtown Hotel.

“Other people have told me that nothing is going to get done until after the election in November,” added Preckwinkle. “Other people have said that nothing will get done during his term.”

When pressed if she felt that some movement was going to take place by Tuesday, May 31, Preckwinkle said, “No, I don’t think anything is going to get done.”

Despite the budget stalemate, Preckwinkle said that a waiver has been obtained to begin Medicaid expansion that has led to the creation of County Care, a managed care program. Preckwinkle told members of the Publishers Association that more than 160,000 people have signed up for County Care, which for the first time will provide preventive medicine to this population.

In regards to public safety, Preckwinkle said that the county has worked hard with various stakeholders to reduce the population at Cook County Jail.

“When I took office, the average daily population at the jail was about 10,000,” Preckwinkle said. “It is now about 7,000. I’ve often said that our County Jail lies at the intersection of racism and poverty, and a close look at how and why people – especially people of color – have traditionally been detained at the jail underscores that problem.”

The Cook County Board President told the publishers group that only seven percent of prisoners in jail are actually serving a sentence. She added that 93 percent are awaiting trial. She added that of those prisoners awaiting trial, 70 percent are accused of non-violent crimes.

Preckwinkle said that the county has emphasized efficient and ethical government and demanded accountability in spending money and the performance of employees. She also said that that the county has upgraded technology with improved work flow and better customer service.

She alluded to changes to the Cook County Hospitals campus, including a state-of-the-art ambulatory center next to Stroger Hospital. She also mentioned upgrades and road improvements made throughout the county the past few years.

One project included providing turning lanes to traffic lights, making curb and street repairs, and improving the landscape by adding trees along Central Avenue and Southwest Highway in Oak Lawn. The improvements were made to provide traffic safety near St. Gerald Elementary School, which local officials had deemed dangerous for drivers and pedestrians.

But after pointing out accomplishments of her office, she discussed the current budget stalemate in Springfield.

“We are now almost 11 months into the state’s 2016 fiscal year without a budget,” Preckwinkle said. “I find this unacceptable.”

While not initially assessing blame for the lack of movement on the budget, Preckwinkle later said that as a Democrat, “my philosophy of government is largely contrary to the views Gov. Rauner has put forth in his ‘Turnaround Agenda.’”

The Cook County Board president said that government has to do more at every level with less. But she admitted that due to the state’s budget woes, the challenge has been greater. Preckwinkle said that the state owes Cook County and its health and hospital system about $83 million. The largest percentage is for the health and hospitals system, which is currently about $40 million, she said. The state also owes Cook County more than $12 million for staffing resources used in child support enforcement.

“I find it unconscionable that Springfield would put at risk a program whose purpose is to ensure child support is paid to custodial parents and guardians,” Preckwinkle told the Publishers Association. “But for the past 11 months, that is what has happened.”

Preckwinkle said that as the end of the state fiscal year approaches, difficult decisions on the viability of these programs will have to be made if no budget is approved. She also mentioned that other programs, mainly in public health and safety, operate with grant funds and could be threatened due to the stalemate.

“We are in this together; we need to pull together to bring whatever pressure we can to get this troubling situation resolved,” concluded Preckwinkle.