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Cook County sales tax to be reduced by a half-penny

Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

It’s official: Cook County’s unpopular sales tax will be shaved by a half-penny next year.

Today, a majority of Cook County Commissioners overrode Board President Todd Stroger’s veto of rollback legislation.

Despite heavy behind-the-scenes lobbying by unions and a coalition of ministers standing with Stroger to keep the sales tax in place, commissioners voted 12-5 to roll back the county’s portion of the sales tax from 1.75 to 1.25, or a half penny on the dollar.

Commissioner Robert Steele, who voted to override the board president’s vote, was among the board members Stroger singled out in an effort to change his vote.

“They were sending people at us all weekend,” Steele told reporters before the vote. Asked whether he was swayed, Steele said: “I wear my pants strong.”

While Stroger championed the hike and a majority of commissioners approved the full penny increase in 2008, anger over the sales tax looms as a central issue in the 2010 elections.

Stroger has argued the sales tax is needed to keep the county’s $1 billion hospital and healthcare system for the poor and uninsured in place. Otherwise, he has said, Provident and Oak Forest hospitals may likely shutter as full-service hospitals, slashing union jobs and hurting those who need the free healthcare services the county provides.

He invoked his late father, Cook County Board President John Stroger and the new county hospital that was named for him. He reminded commissioners that they lauded the new facility, but warned: “Now that’s all in jeopardy.”

But Commissioner Tony Peraica, a suburban Republican who didn’t vote for the initial hike, has argued that cleansing the county payrolls of political patronage could shore up finances and keep the healthcare system running.

But commissioners, hearing the drumbeat of the February 2010 primary growing louder, are now saying the hike is yet another burden on consumers already hurting in one of the worst economic downturns of our time.

Indeed, the county’s hike pushed Chicago’s overall sales tax to 10.25 percent, among the highest in the country.

In the Cook County suburbs, business owners say shoppers are fleeing to the collar counties for big-ticket purchases.

After Stroger successfully vetoed three previous measures to lower the sales tax —and commissioners were unable to muster the 14 votes for an override — suburban state lawmakers stepped in to push for a change in Illinois law that lowered Cook County’s override threshold.

In November, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a measure lowering the threshold to 11 votes out of 17, or a three-fifths majority, in line with the voting rules of local governing bodies and even Congress.

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