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Holding 'Tax Foes' to Their Word

Monday, December 15, 2003
Chicago Tribune

On Dec. 4 this page chronicled how 12 of the 17 members of the Cook County Board portrayed themselves as foes of higher taxes. Last year, during their campaigns, the 12 responded to a Tribune questionnaire that asked: "If forced in future budget years to choose between cutting the county's payroll or raising taxes, which one would you choose, and why?"

In varying but unambiguous ways, the 12 said they first would cut the payroll because raising taxes should be a last resort. The 12 are Earlean Collins, Deborah Sims, Joan Patricia Murphy, Peter Silvestri, Michael Quigley, John Daley, Forrest Claypool, Larry Suffredin, Gregg Goslin, Carl Hansen, Tony Peraica and Elizabeth Ann Doody Gorman.

Last week, as they prepared to vote on two tax hike proposals from Board President John Stroger, at least nine of those 12 board members stood ready to keep their word. That left Stroger short of the nine votes his tax package needed. So the County Board recessed, essentially tabling Stroger's proposed 2004 budget -- and the toxic notion of tax hikes -- until this week.

The question now is whether the nine board members who unequivocally telegraphed their opposition to more taxation last week will stick to their positions this week. In short, will they be able to resist the pressure, and the schmoozing, to get them to raise taxes?

They have to resist, and not simply because this page will be one of many voices that will report who among the 12 speaks honestly, and who can't be trusted to tell the truth.

The tax package Stroger proposed -- an increase in the county sales tax and creation of a lease tax on rentals -- merely hasn't come to a vote. It's still alive -- as are alternate plans for other tax hike packages, perhaps including a lower lease tax or an increase in the county's cigarette tax.

Any part of which would be a grave mistake. Creating any lease tax at all, or hiking a sin tax, is still raising taxes -- something 12 members of the board have said they would do only after first cutting the county's patronage-fattened payroll.

It is crucial the nine board members who showed their unity and influence last week stick to their refusal to raise taxes.

This fight over Cook County's budget is about one thing: self-discipline. County government hasn't had it. Time and again, tight budget years have begotten higher county taxes.

The result is an ever-rising tax burden that discourages companies from doing business -- and hiring employees -- in Cook County. Enough of this sorry cycle.

In the short run, Cook County needs a 2004 budget that has no tax increases of any type. For the longer haul, the county needs a major restructuring and downsizing if it is to avoid these worsening budget crises year after year.

There's no reason why Stroger and John Daley, who chairs the board's Finance Committee, can't fill the county's projected $86 million budget shortfall for 2004 without raising taxes. Some combination of good ideas already on the table -- freezing appropriations at (or slightly above) last year's levels, a lengthy hiring freeze, elimination of vacant positions -- could produce a budget that all 17 board members can support.

That won't be painless. It will require saying no to other elected county officials who can't seem to understand that taxpayers are tapped out. It may require layoffs, a step the City of Chicago already has taken. But it can be done.

This is why Stroger and Daley have their titles, their comfy offices, their staffs. Drafting budgets that work, and that pass muster with the County Board, is their responsibility. Just as it is the responsibility of other board members to now demand a budget that lowers spending.

The key has to be self-discipline, not tax hikes.

Stroger loves to boast about how many services county government provides. He's right. Now he has to help save that county government from the featherbedded payroll and the needlessly high spending requests that are choking it.

It is hard to imagine how a week could be more challenging than this one will be. County Board members will cast what are likely to be the most important, most watched votes of their careers. Those votes could shape Cook County's future -- and the board members' political futures as well.

This week's votes can point to a future in which a leaner, more fiscally secure county government isn't ceaselessly dunning taxpayers for more revenue to prop up its grossly inefficient patronage army.

Or those votes can embrace the past, a time when voters paid little attention to how county government wastes money. Those days are over, as the five County Board incumbents who were tossed out of their jobs last year can attest.

Above all, this week's votes on any tax increases will determine who backs up his or her campaign pledge with real integrity. As stated here Dec. 4: Stay tuned. After the County Board members vote, we'll be back with an assessment of who was telling the truth during last year's campaign -- and who was lying.

That's one promise that won't be breached.

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