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County doubling tax on cigarettes to $2 per pack

Friday, February 10, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cigarette smokers in Cook County can plan to pay an extra $1 per pack in taxes beginning March 1, after the County Board approved the hike Thursday.

Commissioners voted 10-7 to double the county's levy on a pack of cigarettes to $2, bringing the total federal, state and local taxes on a pack purchased in Chicago to $4.05.

The tax increase is expected to generate an additional $70 million for the $3.1-billion 2006 budget also approved Thursday.

Commissioners adjusted other revenue estimates to make room for the hiring of 229 jail guards and 21 other corrections personnel, a move urged by a federal judge monitoring the jail under a consent decree.

Aside from the cigarette tax and the revenue adjustments, discussions avoided the controversies that marked recent budget debates.

Board President John Stroger, who is running against Commissioner Forrest Claypool in the March 21 Democratic primary, did not seek broader tax increases, as in the last two years.

The budget is Stroger's 11th since he became president and, his administration noted, his seventh straight that did not raise the property tax levy.

Claypool was critical of the budget, saying it is top heavy with needless white-collar employees, while shortchanging frontline workers such as nurses.

"We have a system that is rife with duplication and bureaucracy," Claypool said. "What we saw today was an effort to protect a political patronage system."

It was the second time in three budget cycles the County Board voted to increase the cigarette tax. In 2004, commissioners raised the tax by 82 cents to $1.

Commissioners in favor of the tax increase said Thursday it would help offset a reduction in federal Medicaid funds for the county's health system.

Those opposed said it would hurt small businesses, such as convenience stores near county borders.

"This ordinance gives our collar counties another reason to like Cook County," said Republican Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman of Orland Park. "I feel this is an over-the-top tax that crushes the business community and slaughters our cash cow."

Commissioner Joan Murphy, a Democrat from Crestwood, said she hopes the tax increase will cause some smokers to quit.

"I don't care if it would cost them $100 a pack," said Murphy, noting her two sons smoke. "I want them to quit."

Voting against the cigarette tax increase were the board's five Republicans along with Claypool and Chicago Democrat Mike Quigley.

Quigley and Claypool also cast dissenting votes against changing the revenue estimates from the county treasurer's and Circuit Court clerk's offices.

Quigley said it was bad policy to fiddle with estimates devised by staff members who knew them best.

"I guess this forever will be known as the smoke-and-mirrors budget," Quigley said.



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