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Editorial: Preckwinkle must cut sales tax quickly

As a candidate for Cook County Board president, Toni Preckwinkle's No. 1 promise was to repeal the county's sales tax increase.

Now, as president-elect, Preckwinkle's No. 1 job is to keep that promise.

Congratulations, President Preckwinkle, on your resounding victory. You deserved to win.

Now roll back that tax increase.

No waffling. No delays.

Just get it done.

For Preckwinkle, the most challenging stage in the race for president was last February's Democratic primary, when she was up against three political veterans. It was her promise to roll back the widely despised sales tax increase -- as conveyed in a TV ad that showed her shaking hands with a penny-pinching Benjamin Franklin -- that helped seal her victory.

But then a scenario all too common to politics began to unfold.

Having won the Democratic nomination, all but guaranteeing her victory in Tuesday's general election, Preckwinkle began to downgrade the urgency of rolling back the tax. Sure, she said, she would. When she could.

But that simply won't fly. The increase must be repealed pronto. It is bad for business, bad for the taxpayers and is an ugly symbol of how out of touch county government has become.

In 2008, the County Board under President Todd Stroger voted to more than double the county's sales tax by adding another penny on the dollar. That made total sales taxes in parts of Cook County, which include levies by multiple units of government, the highest in the nation.

Voters rightly were incensed by a county government -- long seen as a haven of patronage, insider dealing and inefficiency -- raising taxes when everyone else was tightening their belts. An Oct. 25 Civic Federation report said the tax "appears to have hurt retail sales [and] also placed a greater proportion of the tax burden on low-income residents."

In 2009, the County Board, overriding a Stroger veto, scaled back the sales tax increase by half, effective last July 1. In her "Compact for Change," Preckwinkle said she would repeal the other half.

The general assumption, we believe, was that Preckwinkle would push to repeal the tax quickly after she was elected -- and we're holding her to that. It's only fair to voters that she put the tax cut on a very short timetable.

The standard argument against any tax cut by any unit of government is that doing so would jeopardize vital services, and that is often true. That is why, for example, we favor an increase in the state income tax.

But as the county's relatively new hospital board has shown, it is possible to be both compassionate and careful with a penny. And given how the county's outgoing president, Stroger, burned through money while pretending to protect "vital services," we feel sure this is one tax increase we can afford to lose.

It will be awhile before we -- and the taxpayers -- forget how Stroger spent buckets of public money to hire relatives, friends, friends of relatives and relatives of friends.

Remember the $57,000-a-year chauffeur for the county hospital chief who was sneaked onto the payroll as a "management analyst"-

Preckwinkle, having just won a big victory, has tremendous political capital to spend. But if she fails to roll back the tax quickly, it will haunt her.

The Stroger tax will become the Preckwinkle tax.

During the campaign, Preckwinkle shook hands with Ben Franklin. Now is not the time to start waving him off.