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Preckwinkle tweaks budget to win votes

Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is making compromises on new taxes she’s proposed as she tries to lock up the votes needed to pass next year’s budget.

On Tuesday, Preckwinkle announced a tweak to her initial proposal to charge an $800 per device tax to the owners of video poker and slot machines. Instead, Preckwinkle said casino owners would pay a $1,000 tax for each slot machine, while the owners of video poker machines in suburban bars and VFW halls that Preckwinkle described as “mom and pop establishments” would pay $200 per device.

Commissioners “were universally concerned about the impact on the neighborhood bars and taverns in the communities that they represent, and that’s very different from the casinos,” Preckwinkle said. “So we’ve made a distinction.”

Dennis Culloton, spokesman for Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, said the casino opposed the two-tiered system because it “seems destined to drive gaming to neighborhood” taverns and VFW halls. Rivers is the only casino in Cook, although Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants one for Chicago and another is being contemplated for the south suburbs.

Although Preckwinkle’s aides first said a Chicago casino would not fall under the tax, Budget Director Andrea Gibson now says it would. The mayor said Tuesday that he and Preckwinkle had not discussed the issue.

Preckwinkle also agreed to delay starting the gambling machine tax until June 1. If state lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn reach a gambling expansion deal before then, that also could give the county a cut of gambling proceeds to cover the health care and criminal just system costs associated with compulsive gambling, said Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago.

The gambling machine change comes after Preckwinkle on Monday said a proposed 1.25 percent tax on out-of-county items would start once the purchases hit $3,500 — an increase of $1,000 from her original plan. That would only save businesses likely to end up paying the use tax an extra $12.50 a year, but it appears to have been enough to ensure enough votes for passage.

More changes could be announced soon — Preckwinkle said she is working with Fritchey to find a compromise on her guns and ammunition tax, which is now pegged at $25 a gun and 5 cents per bullet.

Fritchey, who opposed that tax, last weekend floated the idea of spending $1.4 million on programs aimed at reducing gun violence. To cover the cost, Fritchey would delay for six months the hiring of 28 public health care administrators.

Preckwinkle also has proposed a $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, which appears to have enough support for passage. A meeting is set for Friday to vote on the entire tax package.

Another key piece of the budget fell into place last week, when the federal government approved a waiver that will allow early enrollment of about 115,000 more patients in Medicaid that otherwise couldn’t pay for their county health care. That will net $99 million for the county’s public health system, officials estimate.

The changes to the out-of-county purchase tax and the gambling tax would require $1.3 million in cuts, Gibson said.

A vote on her entire $2.95 billion budget for next year is likely to come sometime before Thanksgiving. The budget calls for eliminating the last quarter-cent of the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase enacted under her predecessor, Todd Stroger.



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