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She backs 266% tax hike? Bye!
70-year-old county commissioner might not fear political suicide

Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times

When Cook County Commissioner Joan Murphy decides it's time to raise taxes, she doesn't mess around.

Murphy wants to boost the county's sales tax by 2 cents on the dollar, a whopping 266 percent increase that could yield an extra $1 billion a year for county government to spend.

If you're keeping score, that would be the largest tax increase in Cook County history.

"I'm really putting my head on a block with this, believe me," Murphy told me Tuesday.

Well, I should think so, although I wouldn't want her to find herself there all alone.

Murphy says she believes she has the support of Cook County President Todd Stroger, who has scheduled a special county board meeting for Monday to help rush through the proposal in time to beat an Oct. 1 state deadline to allow the tax to take effect at the start of 2008.

Stroger is trying to keep his own head off the chopping block by playing coy and not publicly endorsing Murphy's proposal, although at least one county commissioner, Larry Suffredin, said the president called to ask him to vote for it.

Three more of Stroger's allies, including William Beavers, have signed on with Murphy as co-sponsors.

Bait-and-switch 'compromise' plan?

Nobody was taking Murphy's proposal very seriously until Stroger scheduled the special meeting.

There's still general disbelief Stroger could find a majority on the board willing to go along with such a huge tax increase. But now commissioners are starting to believe that a smaller sales tax hike could emerge from Monday's meeting, sort of a bait-and-switch "compromise."

Murphy, though, still says her billion-dollar plan makes the most sense.

"I truly believe it would save us from disaster," said Murphy, who was just re-elected last year to her second term on the county board after previously holding a patronage post in the administration of Todd Stroger's father, John Stroger Jr. "I'd just as soon bite the bullet now and get it done. We need the money."

Murphy, the former Worth Township supervisor, represents a south suburban district that includes the county's eastern border with Indiana and southern border with Will County, among the areas where businesses would be most affected by the sales tax differential resulting from her proposal.

But her district also includes Oak Forest Hospital, hard hit by this year's budget cuts and facing an uncertain future.

Even if Murphy's plan isn't approved, I don't like her chances of surviving another election after proposing a billion dollar tax increase. At age 70, however, she might be ready to call it quits.

"I'm not the most popular person in the county right now, I don't think," Murphy concedes. "I'm getting a lot of hassles and a lot of headaches, but I believe in county government."

Cook County first voted to impose its sales tax of 3/4 of a cent in 1992 under then-President Richard Phelan, and the political fallout helped prevent him from becoming governor.

Our current governor is on a mission to save us from a sales tax increase of just 1/4 of a cent that would go toward keeping our mass transit systems running. I've endorsed that tax increase, for what it's worth, so I can't claim a moral objection to the sales tax, but 2 full cents?

The billion dollar revenue projection includes what the county would receive from its use tax, which is what they call the sales tax levied on big-ticket items such as automobiles purchased outside the county by county residents. Murphy would raise that, too. In its current budget, the county projects receiving about $400 million from those taxes.

The county has real money problems, not entirely of its own making, although we'll never know whether an outsider with a more innovative management style could have headed off some of these problems because a majority of Cook County voters decided to keep it all in the family for the Strogers.

"We've kind of cut to the bone," Murphy asserts.

I don't believe that to be true, but I don't want to play the demagogue either since I couldn't tell you exactly where additional cuts should be made. I am sure that a big sales tax increase is unnecessary and would be a disaster.

A Stroger spokesman said the president favors some form of increased revenue, but as far as any particular proposal, "it's up to the board."

At least Murphy is standing up and being counted -- before she's handed her head.

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