Public defender, state’s attorney raise alarm about steep Cook County budget cuts

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The Cook County’s public defender, whose office represents low-income defendants, warned Monday that she would stop accepting some new criminal cases if a new round of proposed countywide budget cuts go through.

In a letter to the county board, Amy Campanelli said her office could become the largest in the country to refuse appointments, which would either force the county to hire private attorneys or likely trigger a class-action lawsuit similar to one filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in New Orleans.

“The delays in resolving cases would increase, the average length of stay at the County Jail would skyrocket, and the likelihood of ineffective representation of counsel would increase,” Campanelli said.

The proposed cuts come after the county passed and then quickly rolled back a controversial tax on sweetened beverages, leaving a $200 million hole in the budget.

State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told the Tribune on Monday that the proposed layoffs would force her to shutter her office’s 65-person civil division — which defended the county in a legal challenge to the soda tax — and farm out the work at higher cost to private law firms. She also said the day may finally have come to shutter all or most of the branch courts — a cost-saving measure that has been discussed for years.

“We cannot, on the one hand, know as a city that we have to do something around public safety … and have the state’s attorney’s office continue to decline,” she said. “It’s not a logical use of resources.”

The alarm bells come just days before the start of Cook County Board hearings to consider board President Toni Preckwinkle’s proposed $5.4 billion spending plan for the 2018 fiscal year that starts Dec. 1.

There’s a $200 million hole in that plan, after the board voted last week to repeal the unpopular soda pop tax. Preckwinkle, Foxx’s political mentor, repeatedly told commissioners before the repeal that getting rid of the tax would harm the county’s criminal justice and public health systems.

Preckwinkle said the repeal would trigger layoffs of prosecutors, public defenders, doctors and nurses — a warning that left several commissioners decrying a “sky-is-falling” mentality by the Preckwinkle administration.

The budget hearings start Monday, with presentations from Preckwinkle’s top financial officials. A presentation from the state’s attorney’s office is scheduled for Wednesday. Commissioners have until Nov. 30 to bring the budget into balance — either with higher taxes, layoffs or a combination of the two — so the ultimate effects of the repeal remain to be seen.

A Preckwinkle spokesman said the board president has been clear that public safety is one of the county’s “core functions” and that she intends to work to “minimize any damage to their operations.”

In New Orleans, the underfunded public defender announced early last year that he would no longer accept the most serious felony cases. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court soon after, but it was dismissed this year by a federal judge who found he lacked the authority to order the state to pay for private attorneys.

Foxx said her office is already stretched thin — the office has 719 prosecutors, down from around 1,000 just seven years ago — which has meant the number of cases over two years old is rising once again and about a quarter of the courtrooms at the Leighton Criminal Court Building are staffed by two prosecutors instead of three.

“It’s a real crusher as far as the morale,” Foxx’s criminal prosecutions chief, Joe Magats, said. “They’re constantly having to do more and more with fewer resources.”

Magats said the number of murder cases pending more than two years jumped 18 percent in the first six months of this year. And there are now only three prosecutors handling nearly 1,000 post-conviction cases while six prosecutors sit on the conviction integrity unit — which has seen a 500 percent increase in referred cases since Foxx took office last year.

“What goes on here is too complicated and we’re talking about the rights of individuals and we’re talking about public safety,” Magats said. Budget cuts, he added, are “absolutely the worst way to go.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Eric Sacks, who became a Cook County prosecutor three years ago after two decades at a top private law firm, is working in a two-person felony courtroom with prosecutor Kimellen Chamberlain after the third prosecutor left to help the understaffed felony review unit.

“One of us or both of us are working on the weekend every weekend,” he said. “Long term it’s not a sustainable model, you’ll burn out lawyers. The risk of making a mistake or having something fall through the cracks — that risk goes up.”

Chicago Tribune’s Hal Dardick contributed.

sschmadeke@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @SteveSchmadeke

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County officials spar over budget cuts in wake of pop tax repeal »

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Public defender, state’s attorney raise alarm about steep Cook County budget cuts

Student Loans, Guns On Agenda As Veto Session Begins In Springfield

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Illinois state lawmakers are on their way back to Springfield.

The annual fall veto session begins Tuesday. The General Assembly could take up as many as 33 bills that Gov. Bruce Rauner rejected.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan is pushing greater protections for people with student loan debt.

“The student loan bill of rights has commonsense measures to ensure that Illinois student borrowers can best manage and repay their loans,” Madigan said.

Other vetoed bills would gradually increase Illinois’ minimum wage, promote transparency in government debt, and require students to be taught cursive writing.

Some Democratic lawmakers are also pushing gun control legislation following the shooting in Las Vegas. One measure would ban “bump stocks,” which allow semi-automatic rifles to fire more like fully automatic weapons. Another would ban future sales of military-style guns.

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Student Loans, Guns On Agenda As Veto Session Begins In Springfield

Veto Session Preview

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Veto Session Preview

Posted:

Monday, October 23, 2017 6:28 PM EDT
Updated:

Monday, October 23, 2017 6:28 PM EDT

SPRINGFIELD, Ill (WAND)- Lawmakers will be back in town Tuesday for what is expected to be an interesting veto session. 

“Normally during a veto session you will be dealing with line item and reduction vetoes and will have a fight over the Governor taking an x amount of money out of a program, this time around we aren’t doing that because we dealt with the total budget through an override”  said Kent Redfield, Political Science Professor Emeritus at UIS.

Another aspect that could set up for an interesting veto session, is the Republicans frustration with the governor for signing two controversial bills, a bill allowing for taxpayer funded abortions, and the Trust Act, which conservatives say makes Illinois a “sanctuary state”. 

“It is a Democrat/Republican thing but it’s even more complicated because you have a number of Republicans that are very angry at the governor over him signing Medicaid funding for abortions and another bill with having to do with immigration so people are watching whether or not the dynamic will be different.” said Redfield. 

Here are some issues that are expected to come up:

  • HB3649- The Debt Transparency Act. This bill is backed by Comptroller Susana Mendoza, and would require all state agencies to submit monthly reports of their bills. Editorial boards across the state, including at the Herald & Review, have come out strong against the governor for vetoing this bill. 
  • HB302- Unclaimed Life Insurance. This bill backed by Treasurer Michael Frerichs would make it easier for families to get unclaimed life insurance benefits after a death in the family. Treasurer Frerichs is pushing hard for an override of this legislation. “Let’s make it the law of the land that life insurance companies have to find their policy holders who have died and notify their beneficiaries this is common sense it’s what everyone would expect would happen when they buy a life insurance policy” he said. 
  • HB2462- Equal Pay Bill. This bill which passed with bipartisan support aims at closing the pay gap between men and women by banning employers from asking job applicants about their previous salaries. 
  • SB1905- Right to Work zone. This bill which is strong support from unions statewide, bans local communities from establishing Right to Work zones within their community. Political experts say members with heavy union presence in their districts could vote to override, since they are uncertain about funding from the Governor.
  • SB321- Auditing of MCO’s. This bill would require the Medicaid Managed Care contract procurement process to be transparent, and audited by the Auditor General. 

New issues are also expected to come into play during veto session. 

“People are curious if we are going to see a capital bill for instance. Which people would love to be spending money on roads and bridges in their districts but the question is always how do you fund it?” said Redfield. “We know there is certain items on the agenda because of vetoes but it is really up to the Democratic majority in the House and the Senate to decide are we going to expand the agenda and get into some other issues. Either because we are serious about passing them or because we want to make a statement.” 

A hearing scheduled Tuesday afternoon will tackle gun control in the state. Three bills were filed in response to the Las Vegas massacre. HB4107, would ban assault weapons, assault weapon attachments and .50 caliber rifles and cartridges. It would also make it illegal for anyone to own those 300 days after the bill goes into effect. HB4112, would make bump stocks illegal. Finally, HB4117, would ban trigger modification devices and require a FOID card to purchase pre-packaged explosives. 

Lawmakers are in session Tuesday at noon.

Veto Session Preview

EDITORIAL: Lawmakers’ pension ‘sweetener’ leaves sour taste

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Illinois has crushing government pension debt partly because a steady stream of “sweeteners” has been added over the years to boost benefits for select groups of people, while adding no revenue to pay for them.

But we’re not sure we’ve seen a slicker sweetener than the one reported by Tim Novak in Sunday’s Sun-Times. In that case, two legislators 16 years ago co-sponsored a pension sweetener that ultimately benefitted . . . themselves.

EDITORIAL

The bill by now-retired state Rep. Edward “Eddie” Acevedo and current state Sen. Antonio “Tony” Munoz let them double dip by getting credits toward Chicago police pensions for every day they served in the Illinois Senate or House — even while they were getting credits toward legislative pensions for those same exact days.

Their bill, which was a simple tweak to an earlier law, technically also will benefit any future Chicago cops who also serve in the Legislature. But so far the benefits have gone into just two pockets: those of Acevedo and Munoz.

Ordinary citizens who don’t get to tweak laws to their benefit can only shake their heads in amazement — as they shake their wallets for money to help Illinois dig out from under its huge mound of unfunded pension obligations. The state’s unfunded pensions are well north of $100 billion, and just on Monday Chicago taxpayers found out they’re about to get hit with yet another property tax increase for police and fire pensions in 2020.

It’s long past time for lawmakers to start focusing on ensuring pensions are properly funded instead of figuring out how to raid them for just a little bit more.

Acevedo and Munoz both worked for the Chicago Police Department, but neither was there for the 10 years needed to qualify for a pension because they took leaves of absence to serve in the Legislature. Neither appears to have particularly distinguished himself while working for the police department. They were investigated by the department’s internal affairs bureau, which recommended firing both of them. Instead, Acevedo got a reprimand and Munoz got a 10-day suspension.

Neither Acevedo nor Munoz pocketed a huge windfall with their pension change. Acevedo gets $4,572 more per year from his police pension, which will be on top of his state pension of more than $64,000 a year once he starts collecting the state pension. Munoz gets an extra $6,802 a year, which also will be on on top of his state pension of more than $64,000 a year.

Those extra dollars come from people who in all likelihood will never see sweeteners like that in their retirement funds.

Sixteen years ago, Acevedo and Munoz were enterprising in taking care of their own futures. Too bad they didn’t put their skills toward figuring out a solution to the pension mess for everyone else.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

EDITORIAL: Lawmakers’ pension ‘sweetener’ leaves sour taste

Chicago’s incentive bid is sensible. Now, does Springfield want Amazon in Illinois?

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All the numbers involved in Amazon’s search for a new second headquarters city are eye-popping. The Seattle-based company, planning to hire as many as 50,000 people at high salaries, is getting offers of government incentives worth big bucks from eager bidders.

That’s big bucks as in billions.

Scores of cities submitted bid packages last week, most choosing not to divulge financial details. On Monday, we saw the outlines of Chicago’s offer: more than $2 billion in incentives, including $1.32 billion in state tax credits; $450 million in infrastructure improvements; $250 million in education, workforce development and city economic development funds; and $60 million in city and Cook County property tax breaks.

First, allow us to blow off some steam: We don’t like the incentive game because it’s a taxpayer-funded giveaway in hopes of a future economic payoff. Once upon a time employers made investment decisions based on business reasons. Today governments want to sweep those employers off their feet with lavish offers.

OK, back to reality: The game exists, so in some circumstances it can be in Illinois’ interest to participate. That’s true if the incentives are reasonable and tied to certifiable job creation and retention. The more incentive money invested in mass transit and other infrastructure to benefit all residents, the better. Taking a principled stand against all incentives in order to watch good jobs fly by to other states doesn’t make sense. We hope someday Illinois has such an extraordinary business environment that employers won’t need to be bribed — oops, we mean incentivized — to come. That time isn’t now.

Amazon is the big fish Chicago should try to lure. The company will spend an estimated $5 billion to build its headquarters, and the 50,000 jobs, many in software engineering, will have an average salary above $100,000. World Business Chicago says Amazon’s HQ2 would generate $341 billion in total spending for ongoing operations over 17 years, including $71 billion in salaries, and supporting an additional 37,500 jobs in the region annually.

How does the $2 billion offer for Amazon stack up? Illinois recently lost out on a big manufacturing project: Foxconn picked Wisconsin as the site of an LCD panel plant with up to 13,000 jobs, in exchange for incentives worth $3 billion. Michigan bid $3.8 billion, but the Wisconsin offer was more valuable because most of the incentives come in the form of refundable tax credits that could be paid in cash, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Michigan’s offer was slanted heavily toward credits that reduce tax bills but can’t be converted to cash.

Compared to Wisconsin’s cash-rich offer, the $2 billion offer to Amazon from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner — depending on how all the details shake out — seems reasonable. We’re still choking on the concept of Illinois giving money to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest guys, but some poker games are worth the high stakes. As we’ve said previously, If another city wants to outbid Chicago, so be it. We want Chicago to win this contest on its overall merits: This city has the location, educated labor force and quality of life Amazon seeks.

There is one other crucial factor: Emanuel needs to convince Bezos that Amazon won’t be hobbled by the state’s public debts and political dysfunction. USA Today synthesized an assessment several handicappers have raised: “While Chicago’s got much of what Amazon wants, its state economy is a mess.” It’d be easy for Bezos and his lieutenants to wonder if Illinois, with the worst credit rating of any state, can be trusted to fulfill its end of any deal.

That puts the onus on Springfield lawmakers, starting with House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, to make clear they want Amazon in Illinois. Foxconn rejected Illinois. So did Toyota and Mazda, which are searching for a factory site. It’s one thing for Illinois to lose out in the competition to offer the most incentives. It’s another to be bypassed because the state is seen as a lousy, risky place to do business.

The General Assembly begins its veto session Tuesday. What will Madigan, Cullerton and other elected officials do, and what will they say, to make Amazon want to look closely at Chicago’s bid?

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

Chicago’s incentive bid is sensible. Now, does Springfield want Amazon in Illinois?

EDITORIAL: Banning ‘bump stocks’ would make us safer

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After a gunman killed 58 people and wounded more than 540 using “bump stocks” that essentially turned his firearms into machine guns, some Republican members of Congress said they would support a ban on bump stocks.

EDITORIAL

Now, though, congressional Republicans are backing away from such a ban. Because Congress appears unlikely to act, many state lawmakers around the country are taking up the issue. In Illinois, state Rep. Martin Moylan, D-Des Plaines, has introduced a bill that would ban bump stocks, along with assault weapons, large-capacity magazines and large-caliber rifles. It’s an idea the Legislature should get behind.

Bump stocks have no legitimate purpose and deserve no defense from lawmakers, even in districts where hunting is popular. By using them, Las Vegas mass murderer Stephen Paddock was able to kill and wound more people than he could have with weapons that were only semiautomatic. The only function of bump stocks is to quickly kill as many people as possible.

Critics of a ban point out that getting rid of bump stocks would have no effect on the many types of gun crimes that don’t involve firing from semiautomatic or automatic weapons. But that’s not a reason not to do it. Why not try to save as many lives as possible from the next mass-murdering gunman?

A bill with a broader sweep that also will come up in the Legislature’s veto session, which starts Tuesday, would require state licensing of gun shops, similar to a law on the books in Chicago. By reining in the few gun shops that are a source for many of the weapons that turn up on crime scenes, that bill would help reduce the day-to-day gunfire on the streets of Chicago. It also deserves to become law.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

EDITORIAL: Banning ‘bump stocks’ would make us safer

Cook County officials spar over budget cuts in wake of pop tax repeal

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Faced with having to make $200 million in spending cuts after repealing the soda pop tax this month, Cook County officials on Monday warned of consequences and pointed fingers at each other.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle presented 10 percent in cuts from the relatively small portion of county spending over which she has direct oversight, but her office warned of dire consequences that would come from eliminating 48 positions, 34 of them through layoffs and reducing grant funding. That would result in fewer mental health screenings for Cook County Jail detainees, put the medical examiner’s accreditation at risk and open the county to risk of cyberattacks, chief of staff John Keller said.

“There is a point at which streamlining our staff becomes a euphemism for gutting our essential government services,” Keller told commissioners during the first day of budget hearings.

In memos to Commissioner John Daley, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee that’s holding the hearings, several other countywide elected officials warned of budget-cutting consequences. Assessor Joe Berrios said he’d eliminate 42 currently vacant jobs. County Clerk David Orr and Inspector General Patrick Blanchard said they’d have to combine position cuts with unpaid furlough days for workers, and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said she’d have to stop prosecuting certain types of criminal cases.

Dr. Jay Shannon, CEO of the Health and Hospitals System, said the cuts would lead to the closure of Oak Forest Health Center in the south suburbs and the elimination of a fund that provides tuberculosis vaccinations. And Sheriff Tom Dart offered up a set of changes to areas not under his direct control — among other steps that still wouldn’t allow the two biggest-spending county agencies to achieve the 10 percent in cuts Daley had requested.

Dart’s recommendations included getting rid of the Forest Preserve District police force and letting his officers take over their work, as well as closing branch courts under the jurisdiction of Chief Circuit Court Judge Timothy Evans . He also suggested the closure of jail divisions and furloughing employees, areas he does control.

Board of (Tax) Review commissioners, meanwhile, contended they shouldn’t have to make any cuts, while Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough recommended new service fees that would have to be authorized by state government. Only Treasurer Maria Pappas bucked the trend of resisting change or offering the bare-minimum 10 percent cut. She proposed slashing 25 percent from her $1.3 million budget — which accounts for a small fraction of the $5.4 billion total county budget.

But several commissioners pushed back at what one has described a “sky-is-falling” mentality on the part of the administration and elected officials, contending the cuts give them a chance to start remaking county government.

“We have an opportunity to do something that county government has not done in quite some time, that’s look to make meaningful cuts in non-critical areas,” said Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Palos Park Republican who was the lead sponsor of the pop tax repeal. He also took issue with the lack of a comprehensive set of proposed cuts from Preckwinkle. She put out her 2018 budget plan about a week early, when the pop tax had no expiration date, saying it was balanced and would be up to commissioners to put in back in balance if they voted for repeal.

“You know everything is, system-wide,” Morrison told Preckwinkle’s top budget officials. “My colleagues are going to need the direction from you.”

In response, Budget Director Tanya Anthony said, “The next step is to work with commissioners on amendments, and we’re happy to avail ourselves of that process.” Chief Financial Officer Ammar Rizki added, “This is a starting process, and will be working collaboratively with the board.”

Commissioner Deborah Sims, a Chicago Democrat who voted for repeal, came to Preckwinkle’s defense. “We asked for this, so now we’ve got it, so now we’re the ones that have to deal with it,” she said.

Despite all the uncertainty, it was clear that commissioners weren’t in the mood to entertain raising taxes after facing the wrath of residents over the pop tax.

“As elected representatives, we must acknowledge these concerns and seek solutions that address this — Cook County’s budget issues — without further burdening the residents of this county with increased taxes,” Daley said.

hdardick@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @ReporterHal

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Cook County officials spar over budget cuts in wake of pop tax repeal