Tuesday, September 1, 2009

County tax “fight” more about political gamesmanship than public policy

The Cook County Board took a month off during August for a summer “break,” but it appears the political stunts will resume in earnest when they reconvene Tuesday.

Because the key issue for the county board will be the same one that has dominated their meetings for months – the county’s portion of the local sales tax, which when added up with the state and municipal portions comes to over 10 percent in Chicago proper, and close to 10 percent in the suburbs.

COUNTY OFFICIALS HAVE tried for months to repeal an increase they approved last year in their portion of the tax, or at least tried to decrease their increase slightly, all so they can spew out rhetoric claiming they are looking out for the interests of the people.

By the same token, county board President Todd Stroger keep using his “veto” power to reject their decrease of the increase, claiming that the county needs the money to maintain public health programs. That means he’s the one who’s looking out for the interests of the people.

For the record, the sales tax in the city is 10.25 percent of every dollar spent, of which 1.75 percent is the county’s share (the state gets about 6 percent, with Chicago getting the rest).

Now I know a lot of people thought this political rhetoric had finally come to an end in late July when the county board put together a coalition of commissioners willing to vote for a decrease (if not an outright repeal of the increase).

ONLY THE MOST hard-core of Stroger supporters were willing to stick with him. So it looked like even though Stroger once again used his “veto” power, he would wind up losing because the county board likely would override him when they meet Tuesday.

Yet all that became undone when county Commissioner Robert Maldonado got himself a political promotion last month to the City Council. He’s an alderman now, which gives him greater influence in his ward than he could ever have had as a county official (that’s the Chicago Way – rather parochial at times).

But it also means that the people who want desperately to repeal what has come to be seen as Stroger’s tax hike no longer have enough votes for support that veto override they were so desperately counting on.

And some got alarmed when Ald. Dick Mell (one of the officials who has a hand in picking Maldonado’s replacement on the county board) that he wasn’t in any hurry.

THAT LITERALLY GOT the anti-tax types all worked up to the point where Mell had to switch his stance, which is why committeemen from the northwest side met Monday at a Mexican restaurant (Lazo’s Tacos on Milwaukee Avenue, I kid you not) to hold a private meeting to pick a new county commissioner.

That could mean, in theory, that a replacement for Maldonado who would vote the same way he would have could be in place on Tuesday, and a tax over-ride could still take place.

But Mell has made it clear to reporter-types that the tax issue isn’t his biggest concern, and he’s not about to ask prospective county board members what they think about the issue. It just doesn’t matter to him.

This is an issue I gave up a long time ago trying to predict how it will turn out. I’m not about to venture a guess as to whether the override of Stroger will take place, or whether it will fail.

NOT THAT IT matters. County commissioners already have said they merely will pass another resolution demanding a decrease in the county’s portion of the sales tax, which means Stroger will again veto and they will again try to override him.

This roller coaster of a political battle will continue until they actually get an override, or until Election Day.

Because that ultimately is what this whole petty political battle is about. County commissioners are desperate to claim they did something that caused a tax to decline. And if in the process they can embarrass Todd Stroger, that will cause them to gain a little more support in their political circles.

Likewise, Stroger is desperate to claim that he managed to maintain some of the increase that was approved so he can claim to his supporters (many of whom these days are those less fortunate in our society) that he did something to keep social programs in place for them, and also prevented those whose interests center more around a “well-to-do” crowd from using the less fortunate as a dumping ground.

IF IT SEEMS like I’m writing that this issue has taken on overtones of class, it has. Sadly enough, it also has become a racial issue – one that will carry over into the Feb. 2 primary for Cook County government positions, including county president.

This has become a case where “the people’s business” has come to be defined by the segment of “the people” that one thinks is likely to vote for someone. Our county officials on Tuesday are going to behave in ways that are meant to benefit them on Election Day.

Insofar as the rest of the days, that just doesn’t matter. This is truly one issue where there are no “good guys,” and anybody who claims otherwise is proving the accuracy of that old cliché, “How can you tell when a politician is lying? His lips move.”


EDITOR'S NOTE: The new member of the Cook County board of commissioners is former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's (http://www.suntimes.com/news/politics/1744901,edwin-reyes-replace-maldonado-commissioner-083109.article) one-time state police bodyguard.

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