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Legislature about to kill Stroger's sales-tax hike

Thursday, October 08, 2009
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

It looks like Todd Stroger's highly controversial penny-on-the-dollar hike in the Cook County sales tax finally is going to be repealed.

  In a major change of position, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan has agreed to allow a House vote on two measures that would effectively scuttle the hike, Mr. Madigan's spokesman confirms.

   One bill would outright repeal the increase, overriding Cook County's home-rule authority.  The other would lower the threshold needed to override a veto by Mr. Stroger, the president of the Cook County Board, from four-fifths of board members to three-fifths.

   Mr. Madigan long has protected Mr. Stroger's flank on this issue, declining to call similar bills for a vote.

   But late Wednesday, two measures to repeal and water down the president's veto authority -- House Bills 4624 and 4625 --  were approved by a House committee by 5-1 votes. Both are sponsored by freshman Rep. Mark Walker, D-Arlington Heights, and both would take effect 30 days after approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

   Mr. Walker says he wrote an extensive memo to the speaker and his staff outlining his reasoning, and then finally met with Mr. Madigan to present his case in person.

   "I talked to him about what I heard when I went door to door: Todd Stroger has become a symbol of bad government," Mr. Walker said. ""We don't want the economic recovery to be jeopardized by this tax, which is regressive and outrageously high."

   Mr. Madigan's spokesman confirms that the speaker has agreed to call the bills during the fall veto session that begins next Wednesday, if Mr. Walker wants.  Rep. Walker -- who represents what until recently had been a heavily Republican district -- "persuaded the speaker to let the bills proceed," the spokesman says.

    The County Board several times has voted to at least partially repeal the tax, which moved the rate to 1.75%,, but was unable to garner the four-fifths vote needed to override Mr. Stroger.

    State Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, has been unsuccessfully pushing for such action for several years, and suggested on Thursday that Mr. Stroger had become too big of a political liability to bear.

   "People can say what they want about Mike Madigan, but he is highly skilled at understanding political reality -- particularly in an election year," Mr. Fritchey said.

   Previously, the Illinois Senate approved a bill by Sen. Dan Kotowski, D-Park Ridge, to cut the override margin to three-fifths, so at least that bill seems likely to pass the Senate if it first clears the House. 

    Mr. Stroger's office failed to respond to phone calls seeking comment.

    *** 5:30 p.m. update:  Mr. Stroger's office finally called back, and he's not very happy.

    Implementing either of the two pending bills in the middle of the president's term not only would be unfair but "poke a $400 million hole in our budget," a spokeswoman for Mr. Stroger says.  Patients at the county's network of hospitals and health clinics will pay the price, she adds.

   The spokeswoman went on to label Mr Madigan's change of heart "a naked partisan move" because, according to her, the speaker now backs another candidate for county board president; Terry O'Brien, who's now head of the Metropolitan  Water Reclamation District.

   Team Stroger promises to provide me a little proof of the latter charge.  I'll pass it on if and when I get it.

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