Finding new and creative ways to pare the Cook County budget must begin today.
On Wednesday, the County Board voted to raise its share of local sales taxes by 133 percent. County Board President Toni Preckwinkle successfully argued the county needs the estimated $474 million a year from the sales tax hike of a penny on the dollar to fund pensions, pay off debt and free up money for roads and bridges.
In voting 9-7 for the tax hike, the commissioners rejected arguments from this editorial page, the Civic Federation and others that a vote to raise revenue should come only as part of a budget debate in which cost cutting also can be considered. So be it. But the pressure to cut costs can’t be allowed to ease now, which unfortunately is what usually happens when new revenue flows.
Preckwinkle was first elected in 2010 on a promise to roll back the remaining half of a similar 1-cent county sales tax increase, and she kept her promise. To offset the lost revenue, she and the County Board found ways to cut costs. They eliminated 2,000 positions and, helped by the Affordable Care Act, reduced health system spending by $225 million.
Now, though, Preckwinkle has led the charge to restore the higher sales tax. It’s not her preferred option, and there remains a legal debate about whether sales tax revenues can be used for pensions. But commissioners dug in their heels against the only feasible alternative, a property-tax increase.
Preckwinkle says the county has to act now because its pension is $6.4 billion underfunded, a number that grows every day. The county did push a pension-reform bill, supported by this page, but it’s still on the Legislature’s back burner. If the Legislature does act, and the reform is upheld in court, Preckwinkle has said she would consider lowering the sales tax again — and let’s hold her to that.
Not only is a sales tax regressive, hitting lower income people harder, but it also can drive away businesses. In Chicago’s downtown area, the total sales tax will be 11.25 percent, the highest in the country. And combined sales taxes may be driven even higher if, say, the city of Chicago and the Regional Transportation Authority turn to a sales tax hike to fix their own fiscal problems.
The County Board traditionally begins its formal budget-making process in the fall. But if they’re going to raise taxes now, why wait until then to further cut costs?
Coming or going, it’s your money they’re working with.
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