Left to right, State Representatives Robin Gabel and Daniel Biss, Cook County Larry Suffredin and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky at the Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast. Photo By Mary Mumbrue

The five legislators who attended the annual Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast on April 20 were prepared for tough questions. Four stayed around to answer them. The fifth, State Senator Jeff Schoenberg, who has chosen not to seek re-election, left early because of a prior commitment. He thanked the audience of about 100 persons and said “We have developed a lot of good ideas in the talks here, such as the North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau. … We have even more power and potential.”

Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin and state representatives Robyn Gabel and Daniel Biss responded to questions about education funding, economic development and pensions. The questions, compiled from Chamber of Commerce members’ concerns, were read by former Chamber president Dick Peach.

“How do we make changes to the police and firefighters’ pensions funds so they won’t push communities like Evanston to the brink of bankruptcy?”

Mr. Peach asked.

Rep. Biss said the topic “has become an overheated fight. … It is a problem of mathematics. There have been actuarial mistakes and contribution mistakes.” Rep. Biss has proposed two bills: House Bill 6149 and House Bill 6150.

Commissioner Suffredin said a resident came to his office recently with an analysis of all the pension liabilities, including anticipated future liabilities, associated with Evanston and said it would take $20,000 per person to cover them. Cook County, however, he said, has “never missed a payment” on pensions.

Illinois is friendly to big business, Mr. Peach said when presenting a question to the legislators about how the state and the county could become friendly to small businesses.

Mr. Suffredin said, “Make plans that don’t cannibalize.” He referred to a business that relocated to Skokie – “just a few hundred yards from Evanston” – and kept the name “Evanston” in their business name. Skokie had offered them a tax incentive that Evanston was unable to offer, he said.

Rep. Biss agreed, saying, “Poaching is not a growth strategy,”

Rep. Gabel said she feels the state needs comprehensive tax reform. “Illinois has a narrow base for sales taxes and [much] retirement income is exempt from income tax.” She said she feels the best time for such reform will be in 2014, when the income-tax increase implemented last year is likely to expire.

“Property taxes are killing businesses,” Mr. Peach read. “Why can’t the state find a better way to fund education?”

“To solve the property tax [education-funding] problem, we need a constitutional amendment,” Mr. Suffredin said. “I’m not sure we’re going to see education funding reform until [then].”