Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle didn't initiate a 1-percentage-point county sales tax increase in 2008, Her predecessor Todd Stroger did. But Preckwinkle did vow to phase out the increase and bring county spending under control without the hundreds of millions of dollars a year it provided. Last week, she presented a fiscal year 2013 budget that appears to make progress on both promises.
On the first, the tax increase, there is no dispute. The last portion of an increase that enabled the previous administration's resistance to difficult spending reductions while disproportionately hurt suburban businesses will disappear with the beginning of the next fiscal year.
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On the second, the only room for debate is in the ways Preckwinkle has chosen to produce a balanced and functional plan for income and expenses. Even there, it's hard not to admire her pluck and creativity -- if not always love her approach.
Case in point: her proposed tax on major purchases that businesses make outside Cook County. The county board president believes that businesses paying 1.25 percent on purchases of more than $2,500 made outside Cook County, much like similar taxes the state and the city of Chicago impose on titled items like cars and boats, will encourage more big-ticket purchases within the county and produce a $15 million annual revenue stream.
It's a worthy goal. But at a time when suburban businesses continue to struggle with increasing prices and sluggish sales, we're not ready to support what amounts to an additional tax on those who cannot get all of the equipment and supplies they need within county borders and therefore will shoulder much of the $15 million burden.
Less worrisome are several other taxes Preckwinkle proposes, including a nickel-per-unit tax on bullets, a tax on gambling machines and a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes. To some degree, it's growing increasingly interesting to speculate on how long the nation's sinners can continue to prop up the financial foundations of government, but there's also no denying Preckwinkle's assertions that gamblers, smokers and -- within the city of Chicago at least -- gun-wielding gangsters are imposing disproportionate costs on society in terms of health care and community protection. If any areas are reasonable to look for additional revenues in hard times, these activities seem to qualify.
More importantly, though, the potential for these taxes to pressure individuals to cut back or eliminate unsafe behaviors could both save and enhance lives, a philosophy that also plays into goals by Preckwinkle and Dr. Ram Raju, CEO of the county health system, to shift the regional health care strategy to one that emphasizes the comparatively smaller costs of keeping people healthy rather than the high costs of treating illnesses.
Yes, there are ideas within the proposed county budget that, however intriguing, may give one pause and cry out for deeper study. At the same time, it's reassuring to find that a government leader can keep a promise to remove an onerous and unnecessary tax and still find ways to operate a streamlined government. Gov. Pat Quinn and legislative Democrats, are you paying attention?