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Cuts, not casinos, will balance budget

Thursday, January 13, 2005
Daily Southtown

Two Cook County commissioners from Southland districts say the county board wouldn't have to consider new taxes on hotels and restaurants if the state would grant casino licenses for Chicago and the south suburbs.

Deborah Sims (D-Posen) and Joan Patricia Murphy (D-Crestwood) accused the governor and the Legislature of "economic discrimination against south Cook County and its residents."

We agree that the Southland ought to get a casino license to keep south suburban gambling dollars in Illinois, and as we've said in the past, we believe a casino in Chicago would make economic sense as an enhancement to the city's tourism and convention attractions.

But even if the Legislature and governor were inclined to create new licenses, it's highly unlikely they'll do so in time to solve the urgent budget crisis in Cook County. Lawmakers have grappled with different versions of casino legislation for years, and the state's 10th and final license has been out of commission since 1997. To assume lawmakers can pass a bill by the end of February is naive.

Even if lawmakers approved new licenses, it's unclear whether the county could tap into that money immediately.

While Sims and Murphy say they are not entirely on board with President John Stroger's plan for new taxes, neither has come out against it yet.

Stroger wants a new 2 percent county tax on restaurants and hotels. The new taxes would hurt hotels and restaurants in this region because customers would have the option of spending their money nearby in Will County or Indiana, where taxes are lower. That will force some businesses to move, and it will hurt business for those that stay.

For Sims and Murphy, voting against new taxes would be voting in the interests of their constituents because any new taxes are likely to drive more businesses out of the Southland and eventually lead to higher property taxes.

Stroger again is making the argument that voters should be happy he's not increasing property taxes. But other new taxes that further erode the business climate are going to cause higher property taxes in the long run. Perhaps a property-tax hike won't immediately come from the county board, but it will come from local school districts, park and library boards and municipalities that will have to make up for revenue lost when businesses move away.

In the meantime, we urge the Cook County Board to look for spending cuts in the county budget. Several ideas have been proposed, such as eliminating vacant positions, reducing overtime and asking constitutional officers for additional reductions.

Sims and Murphy are right to lobby for a piece of the casino action for the south suburbs and the city. But casino revenues aren't going to solve this year's county budget problems. Spending cuts will.

We are simply not convinced that county leaders can't do more to trim their budgets, regardless of whether a casino comes to town.



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