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Stroger wants to double cig tax

Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by GARY WISBY Staff Reporter

Cook County Board President John Stroger sought to balance the county's proposed $3.1 billion budget on Monday by dropping the hammer on smokers for the t hird time in two weeks -- urging a doubling of the $1 county tax on a pack of cigarettes.

If approved by the County Board, Chicagoans would pay $4.05 in taxes per pack. Smokers in New York City cough up $3.39.

The proposed tax increase is the third recent slap at smokers. On Dec. 7, the City Council imposed a smoking ban on virtually all of indoor Chicago, exempting private homes, clubs and lodges, retail tobacco stores and 25 percent of hotel rooms. The ban takes effect Jan. 1, but taverns and restaurant bars have until July 1, 2008, to comply.

RISING COUNTY FEE

WHERE IT GOES
Cook County board president John Stroger wants to raise the county cigarette tax by $1, which would bring taxes on a single pack in Chicago to $4.05:
*68 cents for the city
*$1 for Cook County; Stroger would increase that to $2
*98 cents for the State of Illinois
*39 cents for the federal govt.

And last Wednesday, aldermen raised the city's per-pack tax by 20 cents, to 68 cents. That's on top of 98 cents for the state and 39 cents for the federal government.
17 cents not so long ago

The county tax was a mere 17 cents until last year, when it shot up another 83 cents. But it raised so much money -- $130 million compared with $69 million expected -- that Stroger decided to go for another increase.

A new $2 tax would raise an additional $50 million, he said. That would enable the county to avoid a property tax hike for the seventh year in a row.

Democratic Commissioner Mike Quigley, who later in the day exited his planned challenge to Stroger and threw his support behind Commissioner Forrest Claypool, said the cigarette tax gambit eventually must reach the point of diminishing returns. Stroger, he said, "better hope [residents] chain-smoke at home."

Taxes don't need to be raised at all if the board can find the will to "streamline and restructure" county government, Quigley maintained.

He noted that he introduced a county smoking ban, mirroring the city's, two weeks ago and fully anticipates it will pass.

Claypool said he and other commissioners have urged Stroger to earmark new cigarette tax revenue for health care, but to no avail.

Cuts in the federal government's Medicaid program were the biggest hurdle to clear in crafting a balanced budget, Stroger said. His talks by phone Friday with U.S. senators and congressmen from Illinois assured him $20 million more will be forthcoming from the feds, he said.

Waste at hospital, Stroger says
The board president pledged to lean on the county health bureau, w hich runs Stroger Hospital, to trim costs. He departed from his 40-minute budget proposal to describe a recent visit to the facility.

"It makes me angry to see all the trash out front and toilet paper hanging from the walls," he said. "I asked who was in charge of the janitors, and a fella came down wearing a three-piece suit. Even the chief janitor shouldn't be in a three-piece suit. We're going to correct that."
Under Stroger's tenure, his finance team has managed to slash the property tax rate by 40 percent since he took office in 1994. That has saved taxpayers $1.8 billion, he said.

This year, Stroger said his team managed to overcome a deficit that loomed as high as $307 million in September. Reductions included eliminating jobs, cutting salaries and further trimming payments for overtime, travel, seminars, training and supplies.

The county hopes for further economies in ongoing negotiations with unions, largely by winning higher worker contributi ons for health care, Stroger said.

Public safety is the budget's largest single component, totaling more than $1 billion. That would fund operations of the sheriff's department, state's attorney's and public defender's offices, chief judge, clerk of the court and juvenile detention center.

3.8 million prescriptions in '05
The county health bureau demands another big chunk of the budget, $830 million to run the Stroger, Provident and Oak Forest hospitals, public health department and 28 clinics. The county filled 3.8 million prescriptions this year, far more than the 2.2 million filled in 2003, Stroger said.

Republican Commissioner Tony Peraica, who filed papers Monday to run against Stroger, said, "The poor people of Cook County are being used by President Stroger in a cynical way. If we continue four more years with the Stroger administration, Cook County is going to be bankrupt."
The dea dline for passing the budget is Feb. 28. Public hearings are set for Jan. 5 at the Markham Courthouse, Jan. 9 at the Skokie Courthouse and Jan. 12 at the Maywood Courthouse, all at 6:30 p.m., and for Jan. 6 at the County Courthouse, at 10 a.m.

The budget proposal and Stroger's budget speech can be seen online at www.cookcountygov.com.



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