Truth or Consequences
Thursday, December 04, 2003
The 17 members of the Cook County Board are scheduled to vote Tuesday on tax increases to help fund a bloated fiscal 2004 budget that is only a few nickels shy of $3 billion.
In a way, many of the board members already have voted. And they have emphatically rejected just the kind of tax-and-spend budget fix that the administration of Board President John Stroger now proposes. Stroger wants to raise the sales tax on purchases, and create a new lease tax on everything that is rented, in Cook County.
This page has argued that raising taxes is needless and harmful. It's needless to gouge taxpayers rather than slash the county's featherbedded payroll and institute the many reform recommendations to streamline county government that have been floated in recent years. What's more, the sales tax will harm the many poor people who must spend virtually all of their income to purchase goods for their families.
Last year, during the 2002 election cycle, County Board incumbents and challengers in contested races responded to a Tribune candidate questionnaire that anticipated just the vote the board members now must cast. The questionnaire 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?"
Incumbent Earlean Collins (1st District) didn't mince words: "Cutting County taxes." That's important for several reasons. Many of Collins' impoverished constituents on Chicago's West Side and in the western suburbs would be hardest hit by Stroger's taxes. And if the handicapping at the County Building is close to accurate, it's possible the tax hikes will rise or fall on Collins' vote. No doubt her constituents and her potential political opponents will be watching to see if she keeps her word or caves to Stroger.
Board member Bobbie Steele (2nd) waffled on the question, arguing that some county departments "should never be sacrificed in spite of raising taxes," while others "can more easily be sacrificed, consolidated or transferred to other departments." If Steele truly believes that, now's the time for her to say so, loudly, with her vote.
Incumbent Deborah Sims (5th) was as unequivocal as was Collins: "I would choose cutting payroll through retirement or personal leaving [sic] and not hiring for those positions." Sims now must decide which is more important--her campaign pledge or her fealty to Stroger.
Joan Patricia Murphy (6th), then a candidate, was emphatic: "I believe we can cut the county's payroll by not filling jobs that are vacated. . . . " Murphy also responded unambiguously to a related question: "Will you support or oppose the proposed budget of an elected official who does not cooperate with the board president's request to hold the line on spending." Murphy's one-word, underlined answer: "Oppose." Given that Stroger's proposed budget includes several spending increases requested by other elected county officials, Murphy also must choose between keeping her word and voting to please Stroger.
Incumbent Peter Silvestri (9th) was clear: "I will continue to oppose new taxes or tax increases. The county budget does not require new revenues; conversely, it requires reduction in expenditures." Silvestri went on to demand a restructuring of county government, a reduction in staff, and joint purchasing agreements with other units of government to cut expenses. This week he can demonstrate that he was serious.
Incumbent Michael Quigley (10th), long a champion of reforming the county's moribund structure and slashing its high costs, also pledged to cut payroll rather than raise taxes: "[T]he taxpayers of Cook County should not have to bear the burden of our wasteful spending practices. . . . " During his five years representing Chicago's North Side, Quigley has backed up his words with five detailed reports on ways to radically improve Cook County government.
Board member John Daley (11th) responded to the Tribune's question with a broad treatise about county finances, then ended his answer this way: "The raising of taxes should only be viewed as a last resort." A last resort. We'll see.
Then-candidate Forrest Claypool (12th) has spent his first year on the board sticking to the theme he articulated on the questionnaire a year ago: "Cutting the county's payroll. Cook County's budget is bloated and full of waste. The county has added more than a half billion dollars in new taxes in the past decade. The county takes too much of our wealth and extracts too much of the income of our families, businesses and senior citizens. . . . " Not much doubt how Claypool will be voting this week.
Nor is there doubt about fellow newcomer Larry Suffredin (13th): "I would cut payroll before raising taxes." He, too, called for a management overhaul of county government. When votes are cast on Stroger's proposed budget, expect Suffredin to be a man of his word.
Gregg Goslin (14th), who spent much of his first term pressing for privatizing services and bringing other efficiencies to county operations, summed up the county's predicament neatly in his response: "In an era of public and private sector downsizing, due in large measure to the efficiencies of technology, Cook County appears stuck in a 1950s time warp." Goslin strongly opposes Stroger's tax hikes.
Carl Hansen (15th) has been challenging county spending since he joined the board in 1974. His response to the questionnaire: "Cuts in payrolls should always be attempted before any increases in taxes." Stroger's patronage-larded budget proposal gives Hansen a voting opportunity he should relish.
Then-candidate Tony Peraica (16th) also signaled his opposition to the kind of budget Stroger has offered: "I would choose to cut the county's payroll. . . . I think it is common knowledge that the county payroll is rife with both overpaid and unnecessary positions when compared with the private sector. There is no reason to pay more county workers more money to perform work performed by fewer workers at lower salaries in the private sector."
In last year's primary, newcomer Elizabeth Ann Doody Gorman (17th) ousted an incumbent who had voted regularly with Stroger's loyalists on the board. Gorman portrayed herself as an independent who would vote the interests of her southwest, west and northwest suburban constituents who dislike the county's spendthrift ways. Her response to the Tribune questionnaire: "I would choose to cut the payroll. It is no secret that Cook County is a haven for political payrollers who do not provide a day's work for a day's pay, or even a day's work for a week's pay. . . . " Gorman now can vote her convictions.
Three other incumbents--Jerry Butler (3rd), Joseph Mario Moreno (7th), and Roberto Maldonado (8th)--ran unopposed last year, and thus did not receive Tribune questionnaires. They are expected to vote this week with Stroger. Which is too bad, because if they do, their African-American and Latino constituents will pay a disproportionate share of Stroger's tax hikes.
This week's vote may be the most telling of the current board's four-year term. Will citizens begin to see an overhaul of this slovenly local government? Or another avoidance of reforms that are desperately needed now? This is no time for board members who swore off tax hikes to buckle to the administration's pressure, or to cast votes that will mark them as phonies.
Last year Cook County voters articulated how much they resented business as usual. They dumped out of office five supposedly secure County Board incumbents. The looming vote on Stroger's tax package will help determine whether, in the next election cycle, fed-up citizens will consign some of today's board members to the same sorry fate.
So 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.