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Editorial: The Toni Taxes: Last Resort Part 3

Friday, November 06, 2015
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

For Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, negotiating a budget deal this fall has been like a spaghetti toss. Throw a fistful of taxes at the wall and see which will stick.

Preckwinkle in October tried to sell her budget and tax proposal as a last resort — not to be confused with the 1-percentage-point sales tax increase she sold as a last resort in July.

Now she's scrambling to cobble together Last Resort Part 3. She dropped from Last Resort Part 2 the amusement tax that would have hit up cable television, bowling and golf, and now is offering a 1 percent countywide hotel tax instead. The county's hotel tax hike would be in addition to the considerable hotel taxes the city of Chicago already charges — and that is making some county commissioners nervous about the damage it could do to conventions and tourism.

Here's another idea, if we can step off the "new taxes" hamster wheel for a minute. What about reasonable … budget cuts?

With more than $470 million expected in new revenue from the sales tax hike, aka the Toni Tax, how about the county reaching into its planned spending to close the gap instead of always looking to consumers and what else can get taxed? That's not a new question. Twelve years ago this week we asked what Cook County would try to tax next: Cats' tails? Deep breaths?

Democrat John Fritchey and other commissioners say a 1 percent across-the-board spending reduction would be enough to balance the budget. Republican Tim Schneider agrees and says freezing new hires in nonessential positions would close the gap. Democrat Bridget Gainer voted against the sales tax increase and has suggested consolidation and more streamlining before turning to taxpayers. Democratic Commissioner Richard Boykin has suggested Preckwinkle cut employee raises in her own office.

Evaluating any of these proposals, however, before the budget vote would require Preckwinkle to admit that when she presented her budget (Last Resort Part 2, if you're scoring), she might have missed a few places where the county could squeeze additional efficiencies. It would require her to stand up to the labor unions that promote taxation over any alternative that might reduce their ranks — such as not filling empty positions, even when it makes sense to trim those jobs.

But the idea that because one tax is unpopular we should hop, skip and jump to the next tax idea is not reforming government. It's spinning the wheel and hoping the arrow will land on a tax that's tolerable to enough County Board members to pass it.

As she casts about for new revenue targets, Preckwinkle is falling into a long Cook County tradition of taxing this or that for the same reason some people climb mountains: because they're there.

Which is a shame. Preckwinkle beat Todd Stroger in 2010 and won re-election last year because voters believed she would relentlessly comb through the budget and infuse more accountability into a government dripping with patronage and waste. She deserves credit for reducing the workforce (mostly by attrition) and bringing a no-nonsense approach that has professionalized county government. She has been more diligent in reducing costs than her predecessors were. She has been a leader on promoting social justice changes at the jail and reducing overcrowding.

But she is still too generous with labor contracts — the cost of personnel consumes 87 percent of the county's main checking account — and she is too gentle with union demands to preserve head count. In a statement this week, Preckwinkle warned that without new revenue, "agencies and departments across the county would be faced with further workforce reductions."

That should not be a threat. It should be examined objectively. Cut, Madame President. Restructure. Instead of throwing darts at whatever new tax you think you maybe can sell to commissioners, go after spending.

Require Cook County's elected officials and department heads to find 1 percent in savings. Tell them to do what they get paid to do: Figure it out.

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