A pain in the butts
Friday, February 10, 2006
by ABDON M. PALLASCH Staff Reporter
Enjoy those $6.59 cigarette packs for the next 19 days. Starting March 1, they'll cost $7.59.
By a 10-7 vote, Cook County Board members voted Thursday to double the county tax on a pack of cigarettes from $1 to $2.
A pack of Marlboro Lights that cost $6.59 at a downtown Walgreens Thursday will be $7.59 next month. The same pack costs $4.45 at a White Hen in the DuPage County city of Elmhurst, and it costs $3.76 at a Hammond, Ind., 7-Eleven.
Commissioners voting against the tax hike said shoppers will increasingly hop borders, hurting Cook County businesses.
With the hike, Chicago will have the highest cigarette taxes in the nation.
The cigarette tax increase helped plug a major gap in the county's $3.1 billion election-year spending plan, which Commissioner Mike Quigley described as a "smoke and mirrors budget."
The "smoke" refers to the cigarette increase, which will fill an expected $70 million cut in federal health care funding. The "mirrors" refers to the board's decision to adopt $8 million in rosier revenue projections from the county treasurer and clerk of the court.
Even the board's finance chairman, John Daley, said he didn't like re-jiggering the revenue estimates, but that it was the only realistic way to fund the 250 extra Cook County Jail guards a federal judge has ordered the county to hire.
"I am very concerned about adjusting revenues, but, as has been said, it is the only thing that's going to pass," Daley said. "It may come back to haunt us."
At $3.1 billion, Cook County's budget could almost run a state. Montana has a total budget of $3.46 billion for 2006, including federal funds. Wyoming, meanwhile, has a general fund of $3.5 billion and a total budget of $7.3 billion. Alaska's total 2006 budget is $7.2 billion.
Illinois' total 2006 budget is $54.4 billion, while Chicago's is $5.2 billion.
County Board President John Stroger's critics on the board scored a few minor victories, passing an amendment to dedicate all $70 million of the extra cigarette-tax money to health care and adding $200,000 in health care services for suburban residents.
Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who is running against Stroger in the March Democratic primary, diverted $333,000 to an agency that counsels abused children.
The board had earlier shot down Stroger's trial balloons about property or other tax hikes.
But critics failed to force any cuts in county bureaucracy.
'I have the power of veto'
Quigley and Claypool tried to pass an amendment forcing Stroger to cut duplicate county hospital jobs -- which they claim are packed with Stroger's political loyalists -- and use the savings to hire nurses and other front-line health care workers.
The irony, Quigley noted, was that the board passed a similar measure the year before.
"We passed this last year and the president chose not to implement the order," Quigley said. "What do we have to do? Say this time 'We really, really mean it?'"
"You seem to not want to recognize that during this term, I'm still the president," Stroger shot back. "This does come under the prerogative of the president."
"I'm just curious," Quigley said. "You're saying you don't have to do what we tell you to do? If you think it's 'wrong,' you don't have to do what we pass?"
Stroger said, "No, I am going to do what I think I have to do ... there are things that the board may do that I don't have to do. I have the power of veto."
"You didn't veto this," Quigley said, holding up the previous year's budget requiring Stroger to trim hospital bureaucracy by 30 percent.
"Stop coming across with all these crazy ideas," Stroger told Quigley, a Claypool ally.