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Preckwinkle drops plan for nickel-a-bullet tax

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced proposed firearm ammunititax news conference Wednesday October 31 2012. Rev. Michael Pfleger (left)

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced proposed firearm and ammunition tax at news conference, Wednesday, October 31, 2012. Rev. Michael Pfleger, (left) of St. Sabina Catholic Church and Rev. Brendan Curran, O.P. (right) of St. Pius V Parish at news conference. I John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 2, 2012 2:06PM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced Wednesday morning she’s scaling back her proposed violence tax.

During a morning news conference, she told reporters she’s dropping her proposed nickel-a-bullet tax, but will continue to push for a $25 tax on each firearm sold in Cook County.

“It was very important to us to tax guns — because we know that guns are the source of incredible violence that we have in our neighborhoods,” Preckwinkle said. “And it’s the proliferation of guns that has made the violence in our neighborhoods so difficult to cope with.”

She said there was “difficulty” with ammunition. In some cases, the taxes would have been greater than the price tag on a box of ammunition. But she’s not ruling that out down the line.

Preckwinkle has been unapologetic about the fact that her violence tax is more of statement than a moneymaker for the county, which absorbs the costs through its public health and court systems.

By dropping the ammunition tax, the county would bring in only $600,000 in new revenues next year, which would be used for the health and criminal justice systems. In the big picture, that money is a drop in the bucket for a $3 billion government.

The violence tax is part of her proposed 2013 spending plan, which aims to close a $268 million gap.

About $40 million in new or increased fees and taxes are on the table to erase some of that red ink, and Preckwinkle has been busy wheeling, dealing and revising the fee and tax plans in order to lock in the support she needs from county commissioners before they vote on the revenue plan on Friday.

Commissioner Edwin Reyes said he supports the measure — particularly now that it doesn’t leave any question that law enforcement is exempt — but he isn’t so sure that the nine votes will hold.

“If somebody doesn’t show up or it gets ugly — you know how some of these commissioners are — they’ll step out to the bathroom when they don’t want to take a hard vote,” he said.

Preckwinkle wouldn’t say whether she had the minimum nine votes for the measure.

Preckwinkle won the votes of Reyes and Commissioner John Fritchey by backing an anti-violence package that Fritchey, a North Side Democrat, rolled out over the weekend. It includes the start of a new gun court, but the bulk of the $2 million initiative would be spent on a grant program that would fund “nonprofits with a track record of effective violence prevention and community outreach,” Preckwinkle said.

The president or one of her designees, three commissioners and three others — one in law enforcement and two others from community organizations — would serve on the seven-member advisory board.

The $2 million initiative also would include a public education campaign about laws prohibiting “straw purchasers” — people who legally purchase guns and resell them to criminals.

While the initiative calls for the cash-strapped county government to spend more money, Fritchey, who also attended Wednesday’s news conference, said this is about saving lives, which in turn could save millions spent on treating shooting victims in the public health system and prosecuting cases that wind through the county’s criminal court system.

This week, Chicago marked a sad milestone, surpassing the recorded 435 homicides for all of 2011. Preckwinkle cited a University of Chicago study showing that 29 percent of guns used in crimes — and later recovered by police — were sold at some of the 40 suburban gun shops in suburban Cook County.

“We lose as many people to gun violence a month in Chicago as we’ve lost in Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast, but you don’t see the international attention, the international outcry and outpouring of support that you see there — and they deserve it, let’s not underestimate the scope of that tragedy. But we have a tragedy going on here,” Fritchey said.

To fund the $2 million anti-violence package and make up for the estimated $400,000 in lost revenues by eliminating the ammunition tax proposal, Preckwinkle is looking to cut spending on consultants at the health and hospital system and bring some of the work in-house. An anticipated $500,000 in energy savings will means that money will be freed up for the program.

Her announcement about the ammunition tax marks the third day in a row she has come out with a revision to her spending package to make it more palatable to commissioners.

On Monday, she announced changes to her “use tax” — a tax on merchandise purchased outside Cook County but used here. The idea is to get residents and businesses in Cook County to shop locally.

The 1.25 percent tax on non-titled items — think lumber or a television — originally applied to purchases starting at $2,500. But this week, Preckwinkle said the threshold will be raised to $3,500.

Originally, the “use tax” was supposed to bring in $15 million in new revenues next year, but her revised plan means it will fall by $1.2 million to $13.8 million.

On Tuesday, she announced she was revamping her proposed gambling tax. Under the original plan, she wanted an $800-a-year tax on every slot machine at Rivers Casino in suburban Des Plaines — the only casino in the county — as well as each video-gaming device that pops up in suburban Cook County. But now she wants Rivers to take the biggest bite, so those machines will be taxed at $1,000 apiece annually while the video-gambling machines will be $200 apiece.

The revamp means the county projections for the gambling tax falls by $100,000 from $1.3 million to $1.2 million.

Preckwinkle’s budget director said they’re studying closely where the county can carve $1.3 million out of the budget to make up for changes to the gambling and use taxes.

Preckwinkle is also proposing a buck-a-pack cigarette tax that banks on $25.6 million in new revenues next year.

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