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Holy Smokes! County doubles tax on cigarettes
Chicago smokers will be paying $4.05 in taxes per pack

Friday, February 10, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Cook County's cigarette tax will double after the county board Thursday approved a $3.1 billion budget for 2006 that includes new jail guards and a cut in funding for suburban health care.

In an election-year victory for President John Stroger, his proposed budget passed largely untouched on a 10-to-7 vote. His electoral opponent six weeks from now, Commissioner Forrest Claypool, voted against the budget.

Debate lasted 5½ half hours, far less than the 18 hours over two days it took last year.

"People knew the (cigarette) tax was going to pass," finance committee chairman John Daley (D-Chicago) said. "They knew their positions already."

The county cigarette tax will jump from $1 to $2 a pack beginning March 1. That will bring the total taxes on a pack of cigarettes in Chicago to $4.05, which includes a 20-cent increase the Chicago City Council passed in December.

Commissioners supporting the increase said it will serve a dual purpose: filling a $72 million hole in the budget and discouraging smoking.

"Cigarettes are not called cancer sticks for nothing," said Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood).

Opposition commissioners said the tax was too high for what was still a legal product and will push retailers along the county border out of the county or out of business.

"I've met with desperate, desperate merchants who broke into tears for fear of losing everything," said Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman (R-Orland Park).

Commissioners voted to dump a proposed tax on "other tobacco products," which included pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco. Industry representatives had said the tax would be impossible to calculate because it was based on ounces, not sale price.

The board also voted to increase revenue expectations — the amount of money they guess they'll take in over the next year — by $8 million in fees to the treasurer's and court clerk's offices.

The cash was used to pay for 229 new jail guards, which commissioners needed to satisfy an order from a federal judge in a long-running consent decree governing Cook County Jail.

Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), called the solution irresponsible, saying neither the revenue numbers nor the smoking tax were reliable.

"This will forever be known as the 'smoke and mirrors budget,'" Quigley said. "This county still lacks the discipline to cut."

Stroger and Daley said they weren't comfortable with changing the revenue numbers either, but had little choice.

"I'm very concerned about adjusting revenues," Daley said. "But it's the only thing that's going to pass."

About $237,000 of that new revenue money went to partially restore funding cut from Access to Care, a suburban program that helps people without health insurance get medical services.

Claypool proposed restoring the rest of the program's funding by reducing travel expenses and overtime, but commissioners feared his proposed cuts would hurt county services.

"Access to Care is a good program, it works ... but was are not supposed to be the sole source of its funding," said Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago).

Claypool said there is money "stashed away all over this budget" and any cuts could be easily absorbed.

Claypool also failed in his attempt to again force the bureau of health to consolidate bureaucracy among its three hospitals. The board passed a similar budget amendment last year, but Stroger has held off on implementing it, saying it needs more study.

"President Stroger has not carried out the will of this board," Claypool said. "This can't be ignored."

Stroger promised commissioners he was working on a consolidation plan and said it was not the board's job to manage details.

"There are things the board may (approve) that I don't have to do. I have the power of veto," Stroger said. "Forrest ... you don't know a ding-dang-dang thing about health care and management."



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