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Stroger seeks 2 election-year tax hikes

Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

With the potential for a tough re-election challenge a little more than three months away, Cook County Board President John Stroger bucked conventional wisdom Monday and announced he would seek a pair of tax increases for next year.

Stroger said his 2006 budget, which he intends to unveil next week,will include a doubling of the cigarette tax to $2 a pack and a 2 percent tax on hotel stays.

Stroger would also extend the cigarette tax to cigars, chewing tobacco and other tobacco products.

In the past, Stroger has avoided seeking tax increases in election years, keeping himself and his fellow commissioners on safer ground with voters.

But in a press release issued late Monday afternoon, Stroger said despite significant belt-tightening by his finance team, a $95 million budget gap remains. He cited a $70 million reduction in federal Medicaid funding as a serious blow.

"We have cut everywhere possible without impacting services," Stroger said. "But if we are to fulfill our mission of providing vital public health and public safety services, we will need new revenues just like other units of government have adopted."

This is the second straight year Stroger is proposing a hotel tax, which the county does not currently levy. Earlier this year, he backed away from the idea after it became clear he did not have the votes on the County Board to win approval.

The cigarette tax is also not new to the county, which balanced its budget two years ago on an 82-cent-a-pack increase.

Stroger's budget announcement came on the same day that he filed his petitions to get on the ballot for re-election in the March 21 Democratic primary.

County Commissioner Forrest Claypool also filed his petitions Monday. Mike Quigley, another Democrat who intends to challenge Stroger, said he would file his petitions next week.

Both Claypool and Quigley have been instrumental in blocking several of Stroger's tax initiatives over the last two budget cycles.

Claypool said a tax on hotel stays would harm the hospitality industry just as it has shown signs of improvement following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"This would literally throw thousands of hardworking families out of work," said Claypool, adding the tax is unnecessary. "President Stroger has been unwilling to actually cut the bureaucracy that has grown like Topsy under his leadership."

Quigley said he would oppose both taxes, but he predicted the cigarette tax could win board approval. He said it was a "failure of this administration" that Stroger couldn't balance the budget without raising taxes.

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