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Cook County commissioners vote to trim sales tax
Stroger vows veto, calls latest measure 'backward'

Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Dan P. Blake

Cook County commissioners on Tuesday once again voted to scale back an unpopular sales tax increase, saying this time they have the votes to make it stick.

That remains to be seen, however, as Board President Todd Stroger pledged to veto the tax cut. If the latest vote is any indication, Stroger will need to pick off just one commissioner to keep in place the penny-on-the-dollar increase he pushed through last year.

Having to face potentially angry voters in February, several commissioners said Tuesday it was time to reach agreement on a tax rollback. So 14 of them signed on to a proposal to cut the county portion of the sales tax to 1.25 percent from 1.75 percent. If it stands, half of the county's 1-percentage-point increase would go away Jan. 1 and the total sales tax in Chicago would dip to 9.75 percent.

"This is a good compromise for all of us," said Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy (D-Crestwood), who voted last year for the tax hike. "It's something that I believe we can live with."

Before the meeting had ended, however, Stroger said he would again veto the attempted tax cut. He did that twice in May, and tax cut proponents could not muster the 14 votes needed to overturn Stroger's vetoes.

Supporters note they got 14 of 17 commissioners to sponsor the latest tax-cut proposal, including three who on May 19 did not vote to overturn Stroger's veto: Chicago Democrats Earlean Collins, Robert Steele and Deborah Sims.

After a couple hours of debate, 12 commissioners voted for the sales-tax cut. Two other commissioners who sponsored the measure but missed the board's vote, Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) and Tony Peraica (R-Riverside), are expected to vote to override a veto. Stroger has six days to veto the measure and the board could take up an override when it next meets Sept. 1.

Stroger called Tuesday's measure "backward." He argued that commissioners cast a vote that amounted to saying the county had too much money before they even went through the budget.

Stroger officials told commissioners the county will lose up to $140 million in taxes this year and up to $200 million the next year if the county sales tax falls to 1.25 percent. County health officials said there would need to be $85 million in cuts if the tax-cut stands.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) said the numbers were "theoretical."

"We're not talking cuts, cuts, cuts. We're talking offsets. So let's think outside the box," said Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman (R-Orland Park).

But Stroger said that county worker-pension payments, contracts with union employees and other costs aren't going away.

"As many people have stated, we're in a great financial state. Why? Because we've made the tough decisions." Stroger said. "We have to do what is smart, and to try and make decisions such as this to put us backward is going the wrong way."

Public backlash from the sales-tax increase could be an issue next year when Stroger is expected to face several Democratic challengers.

dpblake@tribune.com


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