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Board votes to repeal hike
Tax hike rollback OKd, but Stroger vows to veto

Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County commissioners voted Tuesday to repeal last year's unpopular sales tax increase -- but taxpayers shouldn't hold their breath that they'll soon be paying less at the cash register.

The 12-3 vote to roll back the 1 percentage-point increase next January was a political body blow to Board President Todd Stroger, who immediately vowed to veto the measure.

Commissioners acknowledged they may not have the votes to make the tax repeal stick. An extraordinary 14 of 17 County Board members are needed to override a president's veto.

Stroger, the prime backer of the tax increase, called the surprise vote "political theater" by commissioners trying to placate angry voters ahead of next year's election. Four commissioners who supported the tax increase in 2008 switched sides and voted for its repeal, meaning they could win back some voter sympathy even if the repeal doesn't stick. Stroger acknowledged it would only add to his troubles as he seeks a second term in 2010.

"No matter what happens, I'm going to take the heat," he said.

In a sign that the politics of the board could be shifting away from Stroger, one of the repeal votes came from Finance Committee Chairman John Daley (D-Chicago), brother of Mayor Richard Daley, who has shepherded Stroger's budgets in the past.

John Daley sparred with Stroger during a debate that turned angry at times, telling the president he "might want to listen for a change." Daley said a Stroger veto "would be a mistake, because of the strong vote of the board."

The Daley family backed Stroger in his 2006 run for the spot once held by his father, John, but Daley on Tuesday said Stroger has "been wounded" and might not get his support for his anticipated re-election effort.

In changing his stance, Daley cited the lousy economy and said the county had "to make adjustments." At least one commissioner, however, clearly acknowledged a desire to distance himself from a tax vote that was widely panned by civic groups, editorial pages and suburban leaders. "We've been getting beaten up, and I'm tired of it," said Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno (D-Chicago), who voted for the tax hike but supported the effort to repeal.

Commissioners Joan Murphy (D- Crestwood) and Larry Suffredin (D- Evanston) also voted for repeal after voting last year to raise the tax.

Murphy sponsored the tax hike and was one of its most vocal supporters. She acknowledged voter anger, but in an unusual twist said she supported the repeal vote to prove how difficult it would be to pay for county services without "our sales tax."

"I know this is all a ploy just to cause problems," she said of the other commissioners who voted for repeal.

Suffredin provided the linchpin vote for the tax hike last year, saying it was a trade-off to secure Stroger's backing for an independent board to oversee the county's vast public health system. He said Tuesday he no longer was obligated to back Stroger and believed the county can make do without the extra $400 million or so in annual revenue from the increase.

Stroger defended the sales tax increase from 0.75 percent to 1.75 percent, saying it was necessary to prevent the decimation of the county's hospital and criminal justice systems.

"This is politics at its best," he said. "I enjoy the political show, but in the end it doesn't do anything but hurt people."

When Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside) argued higher taxes hurt poor people, an angry Stroger shot back: "You can talk all this crap about money and whose money is being spent. The only thing you are getting tough on are people who are poor and people who need protection."

Stroger said he was unsure if commissioners could muster the 14 votes to override his veto. Two commissioners who typically back Stroger -- Earleen Collins (D-Chicago) and Deborah Sims (D-Chicago) -- were absent from Tuesday's vote and could not be reached for comment. Sims last year was one of the most ardent supporters of the tax increase.

Earlier this year Stroger proposed that the sales tax be rolled back by a quarter percentage point because of increased federal revenue, but that led to even more calls for complete repeal. Critics accused Stroger of proposing that as a re-election ploy.

"I'm going to run on Todd Stroger. That's all I can do," he said. "What I do care about is the 5 1/2 million residents."

hdardick@tribune.com



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