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Cook reform bills appear headed to House floor
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 10/8/2009 12:01 AM

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Two bills that would roll back the recent Cook County sales-tax increase and make it easier for the Cook County Board to override a veto will move on to consideration by the Illinois General Assembly after winning committee support Wednesday.

Both measures are out to accomplish the same thing, as lowering the majority needed to override a veto from four-fifths to three-fifths, as proposed by state Rep. Mark Walker of Arlington Heights, would allow Cook County commissioners to roll back the sales tax. Attempts to do that over the summer failed by a single vote, even as 13 of 17 commissioners backed overriding Board President Todd Stroger's veto.

"I would hope that they would do that," said Walker, a Democrat. "I think that's the economically correct thing to do."

The bills were debated at a House Counties & Townships Committee hearing in Chicago. Both passed 5-1, with only committee Chairman Rep. Patrick Verschoore, a Rock Island Democrat, voting no.

The committee was dubious about the General Assembly taking matters into its own hands and rolling back the 1 percentage point increase in the Cook County sales tax imposed last year.

"This bill takes the extraordinary step of taking home-rule authority away from Cook County," said Derek Blaida, the county's director of intergovernmental affairs, who was presenting Stroger's position. He said a 1 percentage point cut in the sales tax would cost the county $400 million a year and jeopardize federal funding on many levels. "You will blow a hole in the only fiscally solvent and stable government in this state," he added.

State Rep. Randy Ramey, a Republican from Carol Stream, voted for the measures, even as he said the Cook County sales tax was a boon to DuPage County businesses benefiting from shoppers crossing the border. "Keep your tax," he said. "Keep sending your money out to us."

The committee's action will bring the debate to the full House floor during the upcoming veto session in Springfield.

The measure to cut the threshold to override a veto on the Cook County Board met less resistance, especially after the County Board itself voted Tuesday asking the state House to do so in a resolution sponsored by Orland Park Republican Commissioner Liz Gorman. Walker said it would grant "more power to the voters and the constituents across Cook County" by making it so "commissioners do not have their hands tied."

The four-fifths requirement, which Walker called "a ridiculous standard," dates from the 1870s and was meant to assure Chicago commissioners would need at least some suburban support to override a veto. More recently, however, it has placed more power in the president's office.

"This bill is a clear shift in authority away from the executive to the legislative branch," Blaida said, but in the end he could only argue against its constitutionality, saying it was improper to change the rules in the middle of an officeholder's term. A rival bill, which passed the state Senate this year but stalled in the House, would lower the override threshold effective in 2011, after next year's election. Walker's would take effect immediately, although he said he would consider amending it if that were the only obstacle.

Having cleared the committee, Walker said he was confident the measures would meet any objections of House Speaker Michael Madigan and get to the House floor, but that notion drew a chuckle from members of the committee.

"He's not necessarily Oz," state Rep. Al Riley, a Hazel Crest Democrat, said of Madigan, "but he is certainly the man behind the curtain."