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Todd Stroger's veto power lessened by new state law
Bill lowers majority needed to override from 14 commissioners to 11

Sunday, November 08, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Monique Garcia and Hal Dardick

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new law Saturday to make it easier for Cook County commissioners to override County Board President Todd Stroger, who repeatedly has used his extraordinary veto power to protect an unpopular sales tax increase.

Quinn said his signature will "correct a mistake" in Illinois law that gives Stroger greater veto power than any other county board president in the state, and several commissioners vowed to act quickly to roll back a portion of the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike Stroger championed in 2008.

The new law goes into effect immediately and reduces the margin required to override a veto from four-fifths to three-fifths, meaning the number of commissioners needed to override Stroger decreases from 14 to 11. There are 17 commissioners on the board.

"It is a very freeing moment and it really takes away the phenomenal power from President Stroger and gives the board a great opportunity to direct the public policy of the county," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston.

Democratic commissioners predicted they would have the votes to reduce the sales tax by a half-penny-on-the-dollar, and Suffredin said he would call for a special board meeting to consider a rollback before the next regular session on Nov. 18.

Suffredin, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the sales tax increase but has since rallied opponents, said he believed there were 12 commissioners who would vote in favor of a rollback. But Suffredin, an attorney and Springfield lobbyist, also noted he expects a legal challenge from Stroger.

The Stroger administration's lobbyist, Derek Blaida, said the president's office "believes there are constitutional concerns and questions over changing the power of the executive branch and shifting that to the legislature during the middle of a term." He said the president "continues to review" his legal options.

Stroger long has said that reducing the sales tax would decimate the health care system, a contention many dispute. The independent health board overseeing the system has proposed a 2010 budget that reduces reliance on county tax revenue by $73 million, and an analysis by the nonpartisan Civic Federation concluded that just $46 million of the new tax revenue went to fund health care this year.

"Once again, it's obvious the governor and some members of the legislature have no regard to our 1 million-user health care system," said Sean Howard, a Stroger spokesman. "The president has made no secret that this measure will lead to repeal of the one-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase, and that will lead to closures of health care facilities."

If the tax is reduced by a half-penny-on-the-dollar, the county would have to cut $32 million from Stroger's proposed $3 billion spending plan for next year, said Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago.

Quinn would not say if he believes a portion of the sales tax should be repealed, but he called the original increase "excessive" and dismissed questions about the law's constitutionality.

He sought to portray the action as a move to eliminate an arcane rule from the 19th century and make government more responsive to voters, rather than a shot at fellow Democrat Stroger, who has suffered political damage from a series of controversies during his first term and faces multiple challengers in the Feb. 2 primary.

"I think that for democracy to work well, you want no branch of government, at the state level or at the local level, to have an undue influence," Quinn said.

Legislators approved the bill during their fall veto session as a way to provide cover to some suburban Cook County lawmakers who may be vulnerable in next year's election because of the tax increase.

First-term state Rep. Mark Walker, D-Arlington Heights, said he decided to push for the change after district residents repeatedly complained about the tax and Stroger's leadership.

"This bill is a very simple bill," Walker said. "It simply removes an obstacle to change in Cook County."

mcgarcia@tribune.com

hdardick@tribune.com


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