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Legal fight brews on proposed phone tax
Plan unconstitutional, AT&T, CUB assert

Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Jon Van | Tribune staff reporter

Cook County's proposed $4 monthly tax on all telephones in the county, including cellular phones, is probably unconstitutional, lawyers for AT&T Inc. and for the Citizens Utility Board argued Monday, but the commissioner backing the tax said he will push ahead with it.

"They say it's unconstitutional, but if we can get it passed we will let it go to court to see if it is constitutional. I think it is," said William Beavers, the county commissioner sponsoring the new tax.

Beavers said he is unsure whether the County Board will approve his tax proposal, which he said could come up for a vote later this week.
"A number of people do support it," he said.

The proposed phone tax, as well as taxes that would boost natural-gas and electric utility bills by at least 5 percent, have generated opposition from consumer advocates as well as business organizations.

Rev. James Demus, founder of the Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital Divide, is urging citizens to call county commissioners to urge their rejection of the tax proposal. The Illinois Chamber of Commerce is also opposed.

If new taxes on phones, gas and electricity were passed they would be challenged in court, said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board.

"Certainly if these taxes are passed we expect immediate court challenges, and I think the law is on our side, but we hope it doesn't come to that," said Kolata. "This should be rejected on lack of merit."

The 1970 Illinois constitution prohibits home rule bodies, including Cook County, from imposing taxes on services without approval by the General Assembly, said Andrew Ross, a spokesman for AT&T Inc.

"It is against the law, can't be collected and is the wrong answer" to the county's budget issues," said Ross.

He noted that in 1982 the Illinois Supreme Court overturned a service tax imposed by the City of Chicago, citing the constitutional prohibition. In 1983 the court affirmed its ruling with reference to telephone, natural-gas and electric services in a case involving Waukegan.

In the last 25 years, Ross said, no local taxing body in the state has tried to impose a new tax on services until the current tax proposal sponsored by Beavers.

In defense of his plan Beavers said that despite complaints that the tax unduly burdens the county's poor and elderly, they are also beneficiaries of Cook County services that the tax will support.

Beavers said that while the city and state impose utility taxes, the county hasn't benefited from that revenue source. The county is looking for ways to reduce a projected deficit of $307 million for 2008

"The people this is going to affect the most are people who don't have health care," Beavers said. "To keep the county's hospital open, we've got to do something. You're talking $48 a year, which is a small price to pay for health care."

While the new phone tax would total $48 a year for a single phone line, most households in the county have multiple traditional and wireless phones, CUB's Kolata said. The consumer advocacy group estimates that the average household in the county has five telecommunications services that would be subject to the new tax, adding up to $20 a month, or $240 a year.

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