A bill up for a vote by the Cook County Board next week could prevent a repeat of the county's recent soda-pop tax fiasco—but it's not a done deal, with the bill sparking an unusual dispute among what are normally board allies.
The proposal by Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia would establish a Consensus Revenue Forecasting Commission that, much like the Congressional Budget Office and a new unit recently established by the Chicago City Council, would issue regular revenue projections and notably "be responsible for evaluating" any tax proposed by the president or commissioners.
Equally of note: Though Preckwinkle would appoint all seven members of the panel, only four would would be on the county's payroll. Three would have to be outside financial experts, including an academic, a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago economist and someone from the private sector with public finance expertise.
Garcia said the measure, which he intends to call up for action when the board meets on July 27, would enable commissioners to better do their jobs instead of accepting sometimes last-minute data from county officials that they can't fully evaluate.
"This allows the legislative branch to be part of the (budget) process," the Southwest Side Democrat said. "Given the situation of Cook County government, commissioners don't really have the facts that allow them to drill down and fully participate in the budget."
But though Garcia serves as Preckwinkle's floor leader, she has heavily lobbied against the plan, with her chief financial officer, Ammar Rizki, warning in a memo to commissioners that it could cost taxpayers as much as $730,000 a year to staff and operate.
"We question the need for such an agency," Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan told me in an email. "The Bureau of Finance's recent record of financial forecasting has been excellent, and . . . incurring additional expense at a time when we continue to face financial challenges and have to make difficult decisions on how to balance our budget" is not a good idea. "We do not believe creating this commission at this time is an appropriate use of tax dollars."
But Garcia, who is expected to leave the board around the end of the year to succeed the retiring Luis Gutierrez as 4th District congressman, says he will proceed . Though he voted for Preckwinkle's now-repealed penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened beverages, "I'm an independent commissioner," Garcia said. "I have a history of fighting for things I support. This is a big part of the modernization of county government."
Had the commission been in place when Preckwinkle proposed the pop tax two years ago, the board at a minimum "would have debated the idea more thoroughly," Garcia said. "I didn't think the tax would have the impact it ended up having on mom and pop grocery stores," he added. "This commission allows for more transparency, without a doubt."
Another commissioner who backs the idea, Evanston Democrat Larry Suffredin, says he's not sure the commission would have changed the outcome of the soda-pop tax , which he supported, but certainly would help members "understand the full impact of budget issues."
Suffredin said he's not sure whether the votes are there to pass the bill over Preckwinkle's opposition, but said, "We're going to give it the old college try."
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