Sales Tax Repeal has Political Consequences | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Sales Tax Repeal has Political Consequences

A repeal of Cook County's one percentage point sales tax faces an uncertain future this morning as a veto threat still looms. The entire vote was something of a surprise at the board meeting, even among the most powerful of politicians. WBEZ's Tony Arnold was there and explains how a small ordinance gained enough traction to cause major rifts.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners is healthy mix of powerful allies and strong, political personalities. So before the meetings start, a good indication of how contentious it's going to be is how many reporters are in the media pit. Before Tuesday's meeting, there were just three TV cameras, and a number of beat reporters were absent. And for a while, it didn't look like they were missing anything.

PERAICA: Is this a maintenance issue or is this...

All the TV cameras left one-by-one.

So when it came time for Commissioner Liz Doody-Gorman to introduce her ordinance to repeal the sales tax, she saw a chance to avoid any major drama.

GORMAN: It's an opportune time. There's no cameras in the room. We can get this done.

The idea of Gorman's ordinance was to gradually phase out the one percentage point tax increase over the next two years. Commissioners passed the controversial tax hike last year and it's been popping up ever since, haunting many of President Todd Stroger's press conferences.

Some efforts similar to Gorman's to repeal the sales tax increase had previously crashed and burned. Nevertheless, Gorman made her argument that Cook County's taxes were driving suburban businesses to locate elsewhere.

GORMAN: Just in my area alone, the border businesses are dying on a vine.

From there, Board President Todd Stroger gave an ominous warning about things to come if the repeal passed.

STROGER: This will be a mistake. Somebody will have to deal with it and of course it will be me, while it's you voting on it.

A few commissioners then took the floor and argued relatively predictable arguments on the sales tax repeal. But then something happened that really shifted the momentum.

DALEY: I would see that hopefully this sales tax is eliminated completely.

That's John Daley. He's the powerful chairman of the Finance Committee and the brother of Chicago's mayor. Commissioner Daley has worked with President Stroger in the past and originally voted to increase the sales tax, but he says county agencies aren't making the budget cuts they promised. Once that cat was out of the bag, commissioners had all they needed. Just one minute later, Commissioner Roberto Maldonado made it official.

MALDONADO: I move to amend on its face this proposal to eliminate the one percent sales increase that was adopted a year and a half ago for the 2010 budget.

And that set off a rapid chain of events that could have big political consequences. TV camera crews started rushing back into the board room as emotions ran high. Stroger lashed out at commissioners.

STROGER: And when you talk about this tax increase, know something about it! Talkin' about the world and all that crap. What do you know about the world?

A normally reserved Daley stepped out of character and took on President Stroger.

DALEY: And you might want to listen for a change.

And there was a preview of what's likely to be a highly contentious Democratic primary in 2010 between rivals Forrest Claypool and Todd Stroger.

CLAYPOOL: We have a real problem here with a board only being able to do so much to reform and streamline this government without a chief executive who's willing to do those reforms.
STROGER: That's exactly what I like. Passing the buck. We can't do anything. We're only elected. We only make $85,000 a year to do nothing!

After the dust cleared, 12 commissioners voted to repeal the sales tax, three against it. Two Stroger allies were absent. And Stroger downplayed any political fallout from the vote.

STROGER: I don't care about all that election stuff. I'm gonna run on Todd Stroger and that's all I can do.

Stroger then vowed to the media he would veto the sales tax repeal. He says if he didn't veto it, the county would lose hundreds of millions of dollars. Hospitals and health clinics would have to close and that's just the beginning.

But with a veto, these things aren't likely to happen. After all, commissioners ranging from friends to enemies, from Daley to Claypool, all expressed doubts they had enough votes to override the president's wishes.

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