Commissioner John Fritchey wants ‘sunset’ provision if sales tax increase passes

SHARE Commissioner John Fritchey wants ‘sunset’ provision if sales tax increase passes

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey in 2011 | John H. White/For Sun-Times

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey will propose a “sunset” amendment to a controversial 1 percentage point sales tax increase Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle is trying to pass on Wednesday, calling the hike a “premature effort to burden taxpayers.”

Should the tax increase pass, Fritchey, D-12th, will file the amendment at a July 29 board meeting. The half percent phaseout would begin a year after its implementation, and it would be reduced another half percent the following year.

“Hiking the county sales tax by a staggering 130 percent is not only a blatant retreat on the promises made to Cook County residents and businesses but given that we haven’t even seen President Preckwinkle’s proposed 2016 budget, it is a premature effort to burden our taxpayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes each year and every year into perpetuity,” Fritchey said in a statement.

Fritchey said he opposes the sales tax increase because it takes away the motivation to make structural changes to Cook County government.

Fritchey said he has already received support for his measure from commissioners who oppose the tax increase.

“I think that the more my colleagues hear from their constituents, the more inclined they’ll be to try to undo some of the damage they’re about to do,” Fritchey told the Chicago Sun-Times.

If Preckwinkle gets the nine votes needed to reinstate the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase, it would raise the overall sales tax in Cook County to 10.25 percent and generate roughly $308 million a year. Of that, $270 million would go toward pensions; $10 million for roads and infrastructure and $25 million to debt service.

The county has until Oct. 1 to notify the Illinois Department of Revenue of a sales tax rate change that would begin on Jan. 1, 2016.

Last month at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Preckwinkle said there is no one “more hesitant to increase the sales tax,” but she said the weight of $6.5 billion in unfunded pension obligations will drag the county down, resulting in credit downgrades and bankruptcy if nothing is done.

Preckwinkle’s office said they were reviewing Fritchey’s proposal Tuesday afternoon and had no comment.

Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, predicted that the vote that would raise the sales tax in Cook County to a highest-in-the-nation 10.25 percent would be “very close” after heavy lobbying by Preckwinkle on one side and retailers on the other.

“She said she had a pathway to getting there. She did. But we have tried to make our case with commissioners. Some are still on the fence and will be more of a game-time decision. It’s possible she has the votes, but I don’t know for sure,” Triche said.

Triche pointed to the countywide poll conducted June 30 by “We Ask America” and the Chicago Retail Merchants Association, a committee of the statewide retailer group.

It showed that 75 percent of those polled opposed Preckwinkle’s plan to reinstate the penny sales tax increase she campaigned against and nearly 69 percent would be more likely to shop outside Cook County to avoid the tax.

The poll also showed that nearly 46 percent of those questioned would be more inclined to purchase items online to dodge the tax.

“People are mobile. They have in the past and they will in the future go to where they feel they can get the best deal. If they know taxes are high in Cook County and they’re lower in Will, Lake, Kane or in Indiana, they’ll travel there to make their purchases and they’ll bypass all of those great restaurants and retailers near the border,” Triche said.

“Fewer people shopping means less revenue. Jobs are in jeopardy. The number of hours worked are in jeopardy. The business itself is in jeopardy if you continue to make Cook County a place where people avoid shopping,” Triche said. “We’ve seen it with gas stations. They have absolutely closed down due in large part to the increase in the sales tax on tobacco.”

Preckwinkle has offered to repeal at least a portion of the penny sales tax increase if and when the Illinois General Assembly approves her proposed reforms to Cook County pensions. She wants the County Board to approve it quickly so she can implement it on Jan. 1 and prove to the Legislature that, “We’ve taken the tough vote. We need your help to pass our pension bill.”

On Tuesday, Triche scoffed at the board president’s explanation.

“There’s no need to vote [Wednesday]. There’s plenty of time to lobby Springfield and fully vet the county budget. We’re talking about raising revenue before we’ve really talked about the needs of the budget,” Triche said. “Why the rush to judgment? Why even put yourself in the position of having to roll it back? Why not take the time now to figure out what you need. It’s going to put those businesses near the border in a really precarious position — especially in southern Cook County. Those businesses are struggling today. The economic recovery there is tepid at best.”

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