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Cook County Board votes to cut sales tax despite Stroger plea

Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County commissioners today voted to roll back part of a sales tax increase despite an impassioned plea from Board President Todd Stroger that "some people will die needlessly" if health care for the poor is cut as a result.

The County Board voted 12-5 to override Stroger's veto of a measure that would cut the county portion of the sales tax from 1.75 percent to 1.25 percent on July 1. The overall sales tax rate in Chicago would drop to 9.75 percent. To see how they voted, please click here.

Stroger could still sue to preserve the tax cut, however. It's unclear if he will do so. The board was able to override Stroger's tax-cut veto on its fourth attempt after a new state law was passed to reduce the number of commissioners required to override Stroger's veto from 14 to 11.

Stroger spent part of the weekend lobbying commissioners to change their minds, but that effort failed.

During the 90-minute debate, commissioner Earlean Collins, D-Chicago, stood fast in her support for a tax cut, contending a strong majority of her West Side constituents supported it, even though the level of county health care services provided in her district are greater than most.

“We are supposed to vote the way a majority of the people in our districts want us to vote," she said. "My district, strangely enough, is four to one for the rollback.”

Commissioner Robert Steele, D-Chicago, also voted to cut the sales tax.

“By rolling it back just a little, we hope it can encourage more spending in our county,” Steele said.

The vote came after Stroger told commissioners that cutting the county sales tax would force the independent board overseeing health care to shut two of three county hospitals and "many if not all of our neighborhood clinics."

"Some people will die needlessly for lack of the health care our system provides today," he said. "These are just hard facts and no amount of wishful thinking or pie-in-the-sky platitudes can change that."

That dire forecast contrasts with a study by the Civic Federation, a non-partisan budget watchdog group. The sales tax cut would result in an eventual loss of $188 million, but the health care system also has cut its reliance on county funding since the independent health board took over.

Commissioner John Daley, D-Chicago, who is chairman of the board’s Finance Committee, said the sales tax rollback would force hard --- but needed --- decisions on spending.

“We must reboot county government, and I believe this is a beginning,” he said, making a comparison to restarting a frozen computer. “The way we provide government today will change and, quite honestly, it should.”

Commissioner Joan Murphy, D-Crestwood, who opposed the tax cut, said the rollback "only" amounts to $50 on $10,000 in purchases, not including food, drugs, prescription medications or vehicles.

“If we cut $200 million out of our budget, we will be back were we were before this tax, this very unpopular tax, two years ago," Murphy said.

Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, said the sales tax is "the most regressive tax," one that hits inner city residents who can't travel outside the county to make purchases the hardest.

She also said it would force needed efficiencies in county government. “You only make cuts where you absolutely have to," Gainer said. "There are places where we need to be pushed to change.”

“Today, we can write a new chapter in Cook County government," said Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman, R-Orland Park. "We are being proactive by leveling the playing field for our businesses so they can grow.”

Before today's meeting got underway, Commissioner Larry Suffredin said all 12 of the commissioners who voted Nov. 17 to reduce the tax by half a penny on the dollar still are expected to vote to override Stroger’s veto. But he injected a note of caution, saying, “Nothing is certain around here.”

Under a new state law, commissioners only need 11 votes to overturn the president's veto, rather than 14.

Stroger, who issued his fourth veto of the sales tax rollback last week, has not said whether he will sue if the board overrides his veto.

Opponents of reducing the tax took aim at Suffredin, D-Evanston, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the tax increase in 2008 but later became a leader of the rollback effort.

They alleged Suffredin, a lobbyist, represents clients including the Illinois Restaurant Association that oppose the sales tax. That's a conflict of interest that should prohibit Suffredin from being involved in the county debate, they say.

Suffredin said the effect of sales taxes is no different on restaurants than the public at large, and a conflict only exists if his economic interests are different than that of the general public.

 “I think this is Todd Stroger’s people’s attempt to confuse the issue rather than face the reality that the tax needs to be reduced,” Suffredin said.

Commissioner Robert Steele, D-Chicago, said Stroger operatives lobbied him all weekend long, at his office and by phone, to change his mind and vote against the override. But he told reporters this morning that he was holding fast in his support for the override.

When he vetoed the rollback, Stroger said he would try to convince Steele, Edwin Reyes and Earlean Collins, all Chicago Democrat who voted to rollback the tax, to change their minds.

The repeal or reduction of the sales-tax increase has been a rallying cry of many Cook County politicians as they head toward the Feb. 2 primary election contests.

Stroger, whose low poll ratings result in part from the tax, nevertheless has championed it, saying any reduction would devastate the county’s public health care system.



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