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Preckwinkle wants $1-a-pack cigarette tax hike

Thursday, October 18, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

The tax on pack of smokes would rise by a buck in Cook County next year, which would leave Chicago with the second-highest per-pack tax in the nation, under County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's new budget proposal.

Preckwinkle, who is presenting her budget today, also wants to charge a new 1.25 percent tax on merchandise worth more than $2,500 purchased outside Cook that’s brought into the county. County officials say businesses would bear the brunt of that so-called use tax.

The first-term Democrat’s $2.95 billion proposed budget also relies on approval of an $800 tax on every slot and video poker machines in the county, a $25 tax on every gun purchase and a nickel-per-bullet tax on ammunition.

All the tax and fee increases would raise $43.4 million, according to county projections. The cigarette tax alone is expected to raise $25.6 million, while the use tax is predicted to bring in $15 million.

Preckwinkle said the cigarette tax is good government policy because it would deter smoking.
“Cigarettes are the principle cause of preventable disease in this country — respiratory diseases and cancer — and the higher we increase our cigarette prices the more we discourage particularly young people from smoking and save (ourselves) the cost of treating people who are addicted to tobacco and nicotine for the rest of their lives,” Preckwinkle told the Tribune editorial board Wednesday.

If Preckwinkle gets her way, the tax on a pack of smokes in Chicago would reach $6.67, leaving it just 19 cents short of New York City's $6.86, according to government statistics. The current taxes on a pack of cigarettes in Chicago are $2 from Cook County, $1.98 from Illinois, $1.01 from the federal government and 68 cents from the city.

Preckwinkle is using similar cause-and-effect logic to justify the gambling machine tax, contending that compulsive gamblers are more likely to commit crimes and cause drunken driving accidents, and guns and ammo tax, noting the cost of violence to the county’s criminal justice and public health care systems.

Nearly three quarters of the county budget goes to fund the criminal justice system, including the courts, jail and sheriff’s department, and the county Health and Hospitals System, with its two hospitals, major suburban health center and more than 12 clinics.

Preckwinkle contended that 29 percent of the guns used in Chicago crimes “are purchased legally in suburban Cook. We’ve got terrible problems with straw purchases and other ways of getting guns in the hands of criminals.”

“I make no apology for this,” she added, before making a reference to a popular comedian. “As Chris Rock would say, if it costs a million dollars to society for every gunshot wound, we ought to charge a tax of a million dollars per bullet.”

Unlike the cigarette tax, the levies on gambling machines and guns and ammo would raise a relatively small sum: $1.3 million for the gambling tax and $1 million for the guns ‘n ammo tax, according to county projections.

The use tax, Preckwinkle noted, is not a novel concept. The city and state have use taxes.

In addition to the new and higher taxes and fees, Preckwinkle also plans to make about $50.7 million in cuts. Those include eliminating 462 jobs, all but 10 of which are now vacant, to save $27 million.

Tax and fee revenues also are expected to increase by tens of millions of dollars, in part because of improved billing and collection at the Health and Hospitals System.

Another way she wants to close what was initially projected to be a $268 million shortfall is by relying on the expected approval of a federal waiver that will allow early enrollment of 115,000 patients in Medicaid under the new federal Affordable Care Act pushed through Congress by President Barack Obama.

That will net the county $99 million, after required investments, said Dr. Ramanathan Raju, CEO of the Health and Hospitals System.

But Preckwinkle said she had no contingency plan if that waiver is not approved within the next few weeks, as expected. Once the waiver is approved, even if Obama loses his re-election effort, the money can be counted on, she said. “We will get it, and the president will be re-elected,” she said.

Part of the budget shortfall is the result of Preckwinkle keeping her commitment to eliminate the last remaining portion of the much reviled penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase enacted by her predecessor, Todd Stroger. Because the last quarter cent is being eliminated, the county will collect $86 million less in sales taxes, Preckwinkle said.

To help keep the books balanced since she took office in late 2010, she has reduced the overall county job count by more than 1,800, according to county payrolls obtained by the Tribune. The day-to-day operating budget for next year would be more than $100 million lower than it was when she took office, according to Preckwinkle’s budget documents.

Under her budget plan for next year, Preckwinkle rejected $152 million in spending increases requested by other countywide elected officials, she said.

She also has proposed collecting $3 million in additional property taxes through levies on new property and “recapturing” property taxes that flowed into city special taxing districts that are being shut down. Taxpayers aren’t expected to see an increase on individual bills, however.

And Preckwinkle also has proposed some lesser new and higher fees to raise about $450,000.

They include:

*Ending building and zoning waiver fees for other governments and non-profit groups and instituting new fees at the morgue, including a $5 charge for each “confirmation of death” letter.

*She also wants to boost the cost of a permit to build on county land near highways and assess fees on oversized trucks.


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