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Mayor Emanuel snuffs out any notion he’ll compromise on cigarette tax hike

Two women take cigarette break W. Wacker Place 2012. | Sun-Times files

Two women take a cigarette break on W. Wacker Place in 2012. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: November 19, 2013 6:07PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday ruled out a reduction in his 75-cents-a-pack cigarette tax increase, calling it a “health care feat” on par with his prior contributions to children’s health care.

Emanuel pointed to the testimony of his Health Commissioner, Dr. Bechara Choucair, who argued that raising the city’s combined state and local tax to a highest-in-the-nation, $7.42-a-pack would persuade 5,500 adults to quit smoking and 6,400 kids not to take their first puff.

“I believe, as Dr. Choucair testified, it’s the right thing to do as a public health initiative to protect those from starting smoking. And it’s right to use the resources to protect our kids [by] enrolling them in Medicaid and getting free eye care and eye exams,” the mayor said.

The son of a pediatrician, Emanuel then pointed to a career in politics spent advocating for health care in general and coverage for children in particular.

“This is a health care feat consistent with what I’ve done for President Clinton creating the first Children’s Health Care Fund that insured children whose parents work, but didn’t have health care through their place of employment. And then, when President Obama extended it by another four million children, this is the resource that funded it,” the mayor said of the tax on cigarettes that politicians at all levels love to raise.

Emanuel’s decision to rule out compromise, seemingly snuffed out an internal debate that has continued within his administration like a smoldering cigarette.

Should the mayor throw aldermen a political bone by reducing the cigarette tax increase to 50 cents per pack?

Or should he stand pat at 75-cents-a-pack over the objections of aldermen concerned about the street corner sale of loose cigarettes and the loss of revenue to retailers, particularly those located in border wards near the city limits?

The 25-cents-a-pack reduction would only cost the city $2.5 million in annual revenues. That’s chicken feed in a $7 billion budget.

But, the political concession would mean a lot to African-American aldermen in particular who represent wards where black market sale of “loosies” is already worse than it is for illegal drugs.

Emanuel has a history of tinkering at the margins of his budgets — without giving away too much — to allow aldermen to claim at least a partial political victory.

He did that when it came to library hours, city sticker fees, phasing out the free water perk for churches and non-profits and even on the garbage rebate for condominium owners.

That’s why South Side Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) is still holding out hope for a compromise—no matter what the mayor said Tuesday.

“Everything is on the table. We still have some negotiating to do. Until we vote on it, nothing is set in stone,” Beale said.

Pressed on why the mayor come down from 75-cents-a-pack, Beale said, “When you start looking at the wards on the edge of the city, the black market is notorious for cigarettes. We’re just going to compound that problem even more. You can go up and down Michigan Ave. in my ward — all the way to 119th Street, Roll your window down and hear people yelling, `Loose squares’ from one end of my ward to the other. Same thing on the West Side.”

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