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Preckwinkle stirs up a tempest with sales tax hike

Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's  move to revive the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike she once derided as poor policy is drawing a distinct mixed reaction from her colleagues on the County Board. Some Republicans hint they could support it as an alternative to raising property taxes, but other members are vehemently opposed.

Seemingly open to the idea was northwest suburban Republican Gregg Goslin.

"I'm not supportive at this point," he told me in an interview. "We've cut hundreds of millions of dollars of debt and waste in recent years that may have earned us some sort of revenue enhancement. We've done a lot of good in five years."

A property tax ought to be off the table, Goslin said. But with the county needing more money to pay for items such as higher pension payments, "there isn't a lot left to tax."

Evanston Democrat Lawrence Suffredin, meanwhile, said he's unalterably opposed.

"I stand by my vote to repeal it," he said, referring to the 1-percentage-point hike pushed through by then-President Todd Stroger. The hike was partially repealed before Preckwinkle took office and completed the repeal.

"We tried this before and it didn't work," Suffredin continued. "Once we cross the 10 percent threshold, we create a detriment to the entire region and hurt a lot of small businesses." (The hike would move the sales tax to as much as 10.25 percent in the city, and up to 10 percent in many suburban areas.)

It's not clear the county needs money at all and, if it does, other options including a property tax ought to come first, Suffredin said. "We haven't raised our tax since 1994."

Strongly in agreement with Suffredin was Democrat Richard Boykin, who represents much of the West Side of Chicago and near west suburbs.

"Nobody thinks it's a good idea," Boykin said. "The sales tax is the most regressive tax there is. It's particularly hard on poor people and the working poor, who have to pay more every time they go to the grocery store."

A similar message came from Illinois Retail Merchants Association chief Rob Karr.

A "shortsighted" increase just in Cook County "will push additional sales out of the county and to the Internet," he said. "We'll have the highest sales tax in the country."

And raising the sales tax won't avert a property tax increase, Karr asserted. "I think higher property taxes are coming regardless. This is not an either/or situation."

But another Republican, Elmwood Park's Peter Silvestri, said that while he's "currently opposed," that could change after he sees budget details from Preckwinkle.

"I'd like to see what the impact of not passing it is," Silvestri added, saying Preckwinkle has "more credibility" on spending issues than did Stroger. "I'm glad the property tax is off the table."

A third Republican, Illinois GOP Chairman Tim Schneider, who represents the northwest suburbs, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Preckwinkle's office has confirmed only that she's looking at various financial options to shore up sagging county finances, and hopes to present a proposal soon.

Update, 2 p.m. — Todd Stroger has some thoughts, too, and given how badly Preckwinkle clobbered him with the issue, they're rather mild.

“I'm not surprised. It takes money to run government,” he told me in a phone conversation. “They've raised all the fees they can.”

Stroger—who, incidentally, is about to seek slating for a seat on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board—did take one little shot at his successor, asking, “Will they call this the 'Toni Preckwinkle tax' now?” And another shot at the media: “Maybe they'll tell the truth now.”



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