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  Cook County Hospital fills more outpatient prescriptions every day than are filled at 26 Walgreen's drug store combined.

Stroger budget embattled on two fronts

Friday, October 30, 2009
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

Emboldened by the lowered requirement for a veto override, Republican Cook County commissioners already are discussing another attempt to roll back the county's sales tax next week.

And they received some support from a government watchdog group that came out to a public hearing Friday to condemn Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's proposed 2010 budget.

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall said he was disappointed by a $3 billion Cook County budget proposal that grows 4.5 percent over last year's expenditures in the midst of hard economic times.

"We don't see any evidence of restraint. This budget is significantly larger than last year," Msall said.

The core issue remains a 1 percentage point increase in the county sales tax imposed last year, an increase Msall called unnecessary and said "is driving business out of Chicago and away from Chicago."

Yet Chicago Democratic Commissioner William Beavers said his constituents had responded overwhelmingly in favor of the penny-on-the-dollar tax increase, given the county services they receive in exchange.

Crestwood Democratic Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy pointed to how Cook County is solvent while other governments struggle with deficits.

"We're pretty stable because of that one penny," Murphy said. "I do not believe we can afford to roll back that one penny."

Yet, Republican Commissioner Tony Peraica of Riverside announced he would push for a complete rollback of that 1 percentage point increase at Wednesday's county board meeting, given the General Assembly's passage this week of a bill lowering the requirement for a veto override to a three-fifths majority.

An attempt to roll back the sales tax half a percentage point - which would lower the county's take to 1.25 percent overall - failed in August when Stroger vetoed it and it fell one vote short of the four-fifths majority then needed for an override. It would need three fewer votes, however, when Quinn signs the law, as he's said he would, which could happen soon, or at most in a matter of weeks.

Republican Commissioner Tim Schneider of Bartlett said he expected Peraica's full rollback to fail, but that he would immediately follow that with a repeat of the proposed half percentage point rollback.

"I believe I have enough votes to override the three-fifths majority veto at this time," Schneider said, "as long as the commissioners who voted to repeal the 0.5 percent tax stand fast."

That would have a minimal effect on the 2010 budget, as the earliest it can take effect would be July 1, altering tax revenues next October for the last two months of the fiscal year. Yet Stroger has threatened that would cause significant cuts, especially in health care, where Health & Hospitals System officials said this week that a full 1 percentage point rollback in the sales tax would cause a $90 million deficit in their budget.

Nonetheless, Msall argued those cutbacks are desirable, as it would be to distribute $377 million in cuts across the entire county system should the full increase be rolled back.

"The sales tax increase is unsustainable. It's having a dramatically negative impact on the economy," he said. "We expect the county commissioners will act to roll back that sales tax."

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