Stroger may face mutiny over county tax increases
Tuesday, December 09, 2003
by MARK BROWN
This doesn't happen every day in Chicago. . A matter of significant public importance is scheduled to be brought to a vote today before a major governmental body, and nobody knows the outcome in advance.
Next thing you know someone will be telling us we live in a democracy.
The government in question is Cook County, where commissioners are slated to consider Board President John Stroger's 2004 budget proposal, which seeks a pair of controversial tax increases.
For the first time in recent memory, there is a question of whether a county board president has enough votes to win the day.
Remember, this is in a city where the mayor's recent budget was approved without a single "no" vote, and where Stroger himself has never lost a vote -- not even once -- although he's reversed course a few times to avoid possible defeats.
As of Monday evening, the 17-member county board was believed to be split 8-8, with the swing vote belonging to Earlean Collins, a former Democratic state senator from the West Side whose unpredictability is such that nobody can be sure of what she will do until she does it.
Three independent-minded Democratic commissioners have teamed up with five Republicans to force a showdown with Stroger by arguing he should cut spending instead of raising taxes.
Stroger thought he had the votes for the tax increases when he introduced his budget, but has seen his support wither under the aggressive tactics of his opponents and the slings of newspaper editorials.
Stroger's prospects were so uncertain Monday that County Board Finance Chairman John Daley, his chief ally, was sounding out fellow commissioners about delaying the vote for two weeks. While that remains a possibility, it was still all systems go by the time Daley and Stroger left work.
"As of now, the president has said he's going ahead," Daley said, promising to review that plan today.
"There are a number of commissioners who would hope there could be some kind of compromise," Daley said. He sounded as if he might be one of them.
Two commissioners have offered cigarette tax increases to replace some of the revenue that Stroger expected to derive from a .25 cent increase in the county sales tax and a new 4 percent lease tax.
One of them, Commissioner Robert Maldonado, is a Stroger ally from the Northwest Side, and his proposal would seem to signal some reluctance to stick with his leader.
Daley admitted he'd never seen anything like this at the county.
"It is unusual," he said, but noted that he was accustomed to close votes from his days in the Legislature, where he also served with Collins.
So I asked him: Does this mean democracy has come to county government?
"I think we always had it, and I respect all these new members," Daley said. "We go out to lunch and that, and we have discussions."
I'll bet those lunches would be a lot more interesting if they could block Stroger's budget.
In the past, you couldn't be certain that one of the five GOP commissioners wouldn't throw in with Stroger, but anyone who would attempt to go that route this year would have some serious explaining to do to their constituents.
That would leave it up to Collins.
"Collins will be the determining vote," Daley agreed.
Collins will undoubtedly face considerable pressure not to be the only African-American commissioner to buck Stroger, even though the two have feuded in the past.
Daley said he believes Collins wants to offer some amendments to the budget. It's not clear how substantive those amendments would be. Others told me she has some reforms in mind.
I found Collins at home Monday evening. She said she was too busy to talk.
"I'm not going to tell you what I'm going to do anyway," Collins said.
Several weeks back, I had placed another call to Collins when it first became apparent she could find herself in this situation. She was in a typically combative mood, denying that the new Democratic commissioners had anywhere near the votes to put her on the hot seat.
"You can't win a game if you don't understand the rules of the game," she said then, aiming that particular barb at Commissioner Forrest Claypool, a leader of the insurgents with Mike Quigley and Larry Suffredin.
I would never call Collins an independent, but she's got a quirky, stubborn streak that defies anyone taking her for granted. Commissioners on both sides of the question told me they thought she was sincere in trying to resolve how she would vote, but I also think she could be fairly categorized in the past as "open to inducements."
At this point, even a compromise could be a victory for Cook County taxpayers, who don't usually get anybody to pause long enough to hear their pain.
"This county government is a strange animal," Collins told me in that earlier interview. "It ain't like no other place."
She's got a chance to start to do something about that.