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County, lobby group brace for tough spring in Springfield

WOODSTOCK – The new executive director of Metro Counties of Illinois said that the state’s largest counties have the potential to be an “unstoppable group” in Springfield.

The McHenry County Board committee she met for the first time Thursday said they liked the idea, because Springfield has to be stopped.

The meeting between Katy Lawrence and the Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee in some ways had the air of making an acquaintance during a crisis. Committee members and County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, shared with Lawrence their concerns over significant legislation they say is aimed at their revenues, and whittling away local control.

“They are killing us. They have no fiscal responsibility, obviously, and they pass all this stuff that we’re supposed to do,” Koehler said.

Lawrence started Jan. 3 as director of the lobbying group, which represents the state’s 15 largest counties, in which 82 percent of Illinois residents live. With hundreds of bills already before the General Assembly – the spring session began Jan. 31 – she said the group will focus on the most “egregious” ones that could do the most damage to county governments.

“The issues impacting county governments are just stunning,” Lawrence said.

McHenry County has had more than a few grievances with Springfield as of late.

It objected last November when state lawmakers approved paying for the state’s 44 regional offices of education from local governments’ share of the personal property replacement tax. While it doesn’t add up to much, the county fears the move could set a precedent for the cash-strapped state.

A pending bill, House Bill 4608, would make McHenry County a “pilot program” for an initiative to forbid governments from collecting property tax increases if their total assessed value decreases from the previous year.

The bill, filed by Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, is a localized version of a failed attempt last year to impose the freeze on every Illinois government under the tax cap. Metro Counties was one of several local government lobbying groups that aggressively fought against it.

Metro Counties takes its stances on bills based on factors such as whether bills impose unfunded mandates, take away existing county authority, or erode counties’ revenue bases. The group cannot take a position on legislation unless it is unanimous among all 15 members.

The committee also talked about educating the public about the need for a lobbyist at a time when “lobbyist” is a dirty word among taxpayers. Committee member Kathleen Bergan Schmidt, D-Crystal Lake, says she often hears about it from constituents.

“That’s one thing they always cite – why are we funding lobbyists?” Bergan Schmidt said.

Koehler said that the $14,000 the county is paying this year to Metro Counties to track bills and pursue member counties’ interests is actually cost effective. It would cost the county at least $50,000 plus benefits, he estimated, to hire someone to county staff to track all of the legislation affecting it.

To Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, the county and other governments don’t have a choice.

“Who in their right mind could look at thousands of bills and make sense of all of them?” she said.

The county also has to do a better job explaining its positions on bills, said committee member Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry. He mentioned bills cited in stories from the ongoing Northwest Herald series “No More Excuses” that revealed that Metro Counties and other government lobbyists are backing numerous bills aimed at curtailing the Illinois Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts.

“We need to do a better job of quantifying why a particular bill would be burdensome to us,” Provenzano said.

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