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Commissioners plan new attack on Cook sales tax

Monday, November 16, 2009
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

Armed with a new, lower requirement to override a veto, Cook County Board members will try again this week to roll back the 1 percentage-point increase in the sales tax imposed last year.

But there are plenty of potential pitfalls, both political and logistical, in the process.

"It's looking very positive right now. In the end, I think we'll have a win-win situation for the taxpayers of Cook County," said Bartlett Republican Commissioner Timothy Schneider. "It's going to help the retailers of our county, and it's also going to force Cook County to make necessary cuts and streamline county government and eliminate waste."

The commissioners have called a special meeting for Tuesday, with the sales-tax rollback as the only item on the agenda. "The question is," said Glenview Republican Commissioner Gregg Goslin, "is it going to be 1 percent or a half percent?"

Evanston Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin said he does not believe there are 11 votes for the full 1 percentage point, citing the new threshold to override a presidential veto.

"And the 1 percent would have some crippling effects," he said. "The half percent takes out a lot of fluff in the budget."

Ideally, said Orland Park Republican Commissioner Liz Gorman, they will pass either a full 1 percent cut, returning the county's portion of the local sales tax to the previous 0.75 percent, or split the difference by cutting it a half percentage point to 1.25 percent, and President Todd Stroger will veto it right away, allowing the board to attempt an override at the regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday.

Yet Stroger could sit on the measure for a week before vetoing it, potentially pushing it into December. In the meantime, it threatens to throw a wrench into the 2010 budget process, with Stroger and Finance Committee Chairman John Daley having set a loose deadline of Thursday for passage. The budget Stroger submitted does not account for a cut in the sales tax, and he has argued the full 1.75 percent is needed to keep hospitals and clinics open.

Suffredin was optimistic.

"I think he'll do it right away, because he knows we'll take the money right out of the budget," he said. "I expect we'll have a budget Thursday. I think with a full day Thursday we could finish."

His Republican colleagues weren't so sure. They expected Stroger to wait until the end of the week or early next week to formally veto it, in effect putting the 2010 budget in limbo. At that point, Goslin expected they'd call another special meeting for the override.

Gorman said the board would probably wait until December's regularly scheduled meeting. Regardless, the action figures to affect the budget process.

"It would seem to me this would push back finalizing the budget," Schneider said. "An awful lot is going to have to get done in the next week in order for us to pass this budget. ... I don't know that's going to be possible."

He added that he'd seen the board much closer to completing things before Dec. 1 and still wind up dragging things out to the final deadline at end of February.

Then there is the possibility of Stroger fighting the constitutionality of the lowered veto threshold in court. A Stroger spokesman said the president has not talked about what he might do if the board cuts the sales tax.

If it clears all hurdles, the tax cut will take effect next July, affecting the last two months of the 2010 budget and requiring $32 million in cuts before a more substantial $200 million in 2011.

An attempt to cut the sales tax 0.5 percentage points and override Stroger's veto this summer failed at the last moment when Chicago Democratic Commissioner Deborah Sims switched sides, leaving the tax-cut proponents with 13 votes when 14 were needed on the 17-member board to meet the required four-fifths majority. The new law, signed this month by Gov. Quinn, lowers that to a more conventional three-fifths, or 11 votes.

There are 12 sponsors on the tax-rollback ordinance, seemingly making it veto-proof. Then again, there were 14 this summer before Sims switched sides. Chicago Democratic Commissioner Robert Steele is one of those co-sponsors, but Stroger reportedly just named Steele's brother Byron to a high-paying county political post.

Suffredin said he was not worried about Steele's continued support, adding, "It's harder to peel away two (votes)."

"At this point, I think it will hold," Goslin said, "but anything can happen."

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