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Sales, Cigarette Tax Hikes Likely
Layoffs Also Possible, Says Cook County Finance Committee Chair

Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

The Cook County budget likely will include an increase in the county sales and cigarette taxes, predicted finance committee chairman John Daley, but it will also include "substantial" cuts and possible layoffs.

Where those cuts will be and how deep they will go will be determined by negotiations between board president John Stroger and a group of opposition commissioners as they deal with dueling budget proposals.

On Tuesday, Daley said cuts probably will have to be made in several departments, including those not directly under Stroger's supervision, such as the sheriff's or treasurer's office.

"I think all the other constitutional officers - better realize their budgets might be cut substantially," Daley said.

Daley's acknowledgment was one of the first indications from a Stroger ally that a compromise budget would include both tax increases and spending cuts.

Stroger's proposed budget has been in limbo for weeks after a group of mostly freshman commissioners, both Democrats and Republicans, successfully blocked it.

Stroger's $2.9 billion plan called for a new 4 percent lease tax and for increasing the county portion of the sales tax from 0.75 percent to 1 percent. Opposition commissioners have said the budget can be balanced without raising taxes if wasteful spending is cut instead.

Any compromise will come no earlier than next month, Daley said, as Stroger meets individually with commissioners in coming weeks. The budget must be passed before Feb. 28, Daley said.

After hours messages left for opposition commissioners Forest Claypool (D-Chicago) and Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) were not returned.

Likely out of the mix is the proposed lease tax, Daley said. The tax faced stiff opposition from the business community,

"I think it's dead," Daley said.

Daley said the lease tax will probably be replaced in the final compromise budget with an 82-cent increase to the county's cigarette tax, which should generate the same amount of revenue.

The increase would raise county taxes on cigarettes to $1 per pack.

Commissioners on the finance committee heard 21 people testify on the proposed cigarette tax Tuesday, with pro-tax public health advocates slightly outnumbering anti-tax representatives of the business community.

Anti-smoking activists said raising cigarette taxes has a proven effect on reducing smoking in the community, especially among high risk minority youth.

"We have people here who are opposed to (the tax increase) because they say it will reduce their revenues," said Dr. Diana Hackbarth, chairwoman of the Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco. "Well, we're for it because it saves lives. And lives trump revenues."

Business advocates argued that a tax hike would not reduce smoking because Cook County residents can easily drive to neighboring counties or states with cheaper cigarettes. And if they do, Cook County will be lowering its tax revenue in the end.

William McCloskey, vice president of Riverside-based Texor Petroleum, said owners of small convenience stores will be hardest hit.

"You can't keep coming after the same core of businesses to support this county," McCloskey said.

Daley said he doesn't expect a vote on the cigarette tax or any other tax until the board convenes to discuss the entire budget sometime next month.

Jonathan Lipman may be reached at jlipman@dailysouthtown.com or (708) 633-5979.



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