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Preckwinkle’s tax increase package passes first hurdle

Cook County Commissioner John Daley Finance Committee chairman. File photo. |  Rich Hein~Sun-Times.

Cook County Commissioner John Daley, Finance Committee chairman. File photo. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times.

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A majority of Cook County Commissioners signed off on a controversial proposal to boost the alcohol tax. Here’s how they voted:

Yes: Jerry “Iceman” Butler (D), Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D), John Daley (D), Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R), Gregg Goslin (R), Joan Patricia Murphy (D), Edwin Reyes (D), Tim Schneider (R), Peter N. Silvestri (R), Deborah Sims (D), Robert Steele (D), Jeff Tobolski (D)

No: William Beavers (D), Earlean Collins (D), John Fritchey (D), Bridget Gainer (D), Larry Suffredin (D).

Updated: November 15, 2011 7:26AM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s plan to expand the sin, parking and other taxes and fees in 2012 won first-round approval Monday from a majority of county commissioners who are days away from inking a final spending package.

The most high-profile hike was in the wholesale alcohol tax, which a bi-partisan group of commissioners approved in a 12-5 vote during a Finance Committee meeting, during which commissioners examined, one-by-one, each of Preckwinkle’s tax and fee hikes and expansions.

Without the tax hike — which would generate $10.9 million — 250 more jobs could be lost, Commissioner John Daley, the powerful head of the Finance Committee, told the Sun-Times before the meeting.

“This is saving jobs,” Daley told the Sun-Times, saying the give-and-take of negotiations means such things as a the Sheriff’s graffiti removal unit will be spared and work is afoot to save nearly a dozen staff slated for layoff in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s victim-witness program.

Already, the Preckwinkle administration has projected 1,000 jobs will be lost unless the unions go along with a plan to take eight unpaid days off next year, including six unpaid holidays. Those negotiations are ongoing.

While the alcohol tax increase is a small part of the $2.9 billion budget, Preckwinkle clearly saw the vote as a personal victory — emerging from behind closed doors to shake hands with commissioners on the board room floor, during and after the vote.

Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, a west suburban Democrat who backed the alcohol tax hike, said that from scanning the fellow Bears fans lined up at Soldier field for the $8 to $9 beers, he didn’t think the hike would hurt sales.

“That always shocks me,” Tobolski said of people paying that much for a drink. “I’m guilty of the same thing. I probably had four pops down there,” he said, drawing laughs, but pointing out he didn’t drive.

“If people want to continue to imbibe, they’re obviously going to pay a little more,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not going to be dry at Soldier Field next Sunday when I go down there.”

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Democrat who represents the city’s Far North Side and adjoining suburbs, said the increase will hurt the local economy.

“The only place where there are starter jobs in the economy of Cook County at this point is in the hospitality industry,” said Suffredin. “Increasing taxes like alcohol affects the hospitality industry, it affects the hotels, it affects the restaurants.”

Commissioner Bridget Gainer’s district includes a large swath of the city’s North lakefront and Northwest Side where bars and restaurants dot the Lincoln Park, Lake View, Uptown, Andersonville Peterson Park neighborhoods, and she’s concerned that jobs could be lost under the current proposed alcohol tax hike.

“Bars and restaurants are the heart and soul of that district,” said Gainer, who voted against the tax hike, saying more work on the measure needs to be done. “These places are usually what make our neighborhoods worth living in, and they’re often the first ones to step up when the community needs something whether it’s a school or a baseball team or any of those things.”

Commissioner William Beavers, whose district includes the lakefront on the city’s Far South Side as well as the suburbs, called it the “poor man’s tax” saying a beer provides some “relief” to the unemployed and now the tax will go up.

With one-third of the county’s budget going to the health and hospital system serving the poor and uninsured, Commissioner Jerry “Iceman” Butler dismissed Beavers’ argument.

“My colleague spoke about the poor man’s tax. It’s used to pay for the poor man’s hospital. We need the tax.”

A flurry of lobbyists for the alcohol industry worked the room, but couldn’t beat back the momentum.

Richard Boykin, a lobbyist with distributor Crown Imports, said he was surprised to see the four Republicans on the board voting for the measure.

“The Republican Party is, by its very definition, anti-tax,” Boykin said.

Out of 15 proposed fee and tax hikes or expansions — generating millions in 2012 — all but two sailed through.

An expanded tobacco tax, to include snuff and loose tobacco, got the thumbs up. And while commissioners backed a measure to charge $4.75 daily to park at the six area courthouses, they amended the proposal to exempt jurors, law enforcement, victims called to a hearing or trial as well as those participating in early voting there.

That adds up to just over $40 million in new revenues next year.

“The budget proposal we put forward is comprehensive and forward-thinking,” Preckwinkle said in a prepared statement. “It included key structural changes and modest revenue increases that will allow us to make significant investments in public health, public safety and suburban infrastructure ... and improve services for all residents.”

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