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Cook County commissioners vote to cut in half Stroger sales tax increase

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Emboldened by a new state law, the Cook County Board today voted 12-5 to reduce the county sales tax by a half-cent.

Today's vote is the latest development in a political struggle between commissioners and Board President Todd Stroger, who pushed through a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase last year. The unpopular tax hike pushed the sales tax rate to 10.25 percent in Chicago.

Stroger has vetoed past attempts this year by commissioners to cut or repeal the sales tax increase and was able to preserve the tax hike because the board could not muster the 14 votes required to overturn his veto.

But state law recently changed, allowing commissioners to override a Stroger veto with 11 votes. So if Stroger tries to block today's attempt to cut the sales tax, only 11 of 17 commissioners would have to band together to cut taxes.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, cobbled together today's bloc of 12 commissioners that backed the half-cent rollback by a margin that would withstand a veto effort. Suffredin voted for the tax increase last year. To see how they voted please click here.

Stroger has long maintained that rolling back the tax would decimate the county's public health care system, a claim his critics say does not square with reality.

The independent board overseeing the system has proposed a 2010 budget that reduces the reliance on local county taxes by $73 million, and an analysis by the non-partisan Civic Federation concluded only $46 million of the new tax revenue went to fund health care this year.

Stroger suggested during today’s debate that the votes were about to break down along economic lines, with commissioners that had a higher percentage of poor constituents opposing the rollback.

“This has really become a battle of the haves and the have nots, and there are more haves than have nots,” he said.

“When you don’t want to fund the services, the thing that gets hit hard the most is our universal health care,” Stroger added. “It’s not just about you, it’s about all of us. If we forget that, we forget what government is all about. It’s here to help people.”

In response, Commissioner Tony Peraica, R-Riverside, denied the board was divided by the economics of its constituents. Taxes hurt the poor harder than the affluent, he said.

“We are indeed all in this together,” Peraica said.

Commissioner Forrest Claypool, D-Chicago said cutting tax revenue would force government efficiencies avoided for years. “We’ve never structured or rationalized this government,” he said.

Commissioner William Beavers, D-Chicago, who is Stroger’s floor leader, defended the tax increase, saying, “My people aren’t running across town to buy something from another county.”

It's possible Stroger could challenge the law lowering the override threshold, in part because of unique language in the law, Suffredin said. The legal argument would focus on whether the threshold can be changed before the end of Stroger's current term late next year.

The vote to cut the tax hike in half came after an attempt to repeal the full penny-on-the-dollar increase failed because backers of a rollback wanted tax relief that could withstand Stroger's veto.

“I came in the room assuming a compromise,” said Commssioner John Daley, D-Chicago. “I expect a compromise.”


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