In an usual split between two powerful Chicago politicians who are normally allied, signs are rapidly growing that Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is trying to kill off Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s penny-an-ounce tax on soda pop and other sweetened beverages.
Knowledgeable sources in both Chicago and Springfield say Madigan fears that the highly controversial tax, combined with city property tax hikes and a boost in the state income tax and other levies, has created a toxic brew that threatens Democratic House members representing suburban Cook County.
Madigan has two potential routes to success. One is to throw his support to repealing the tax when the Cook County Board meets next month, something some sources say already is in motion. Preckwinkle has vowed to resist a repeal, but at least three key swing votes on the board are undecided, two of them close to Madigan.
The other route is to pass legislation in Springfield overturning the tax. A bill to do so has been introduced, and several endangered Democrats from suburban Cook are co-sponsoring it, something that almost certainly would not happen without the speaker’s blessing and maybe direction.
Preckwinkle spokeswoman Becky Schlikerman confirmed that her boss and Madigan have talked, but declined to go into details. The spokeswoman also declined to confirm or deny what county sources tell me: Preckwinkle has asked county departments and agencies to propose two versions of their fiscal 2018 budgets, one of which would plan for a 10 percent spending cut in anticipation of losing the soda tax.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said he’s “not aware” of any communication between his boss and Preckwinkle, and said the speaker “has not taken a position” on the pending bill. But he would not deny Madigan’s political operation is making robocalls and otherwise attacking the tax in some suburban districts, as political insiders tell me they’re seeing, saying, “I don’t discuss strategic decisions.”
According to my sources, Madigan and Preckwinkle talked some weeks ago and the speaker flatly asked Preckwinkle to drop the tax amid signs that the measure was increasingly unpopular with tax-weary voters. She refused.
Shortly thereafter, two things happened.
One, state Rep. Michelle Mussman, D-Schaumburg, introduced legislation to repeal the pop tax if the county board does not do so itself. The Mussman measure— Republicans are sponsoring a similar bill—has 42 co-sponsors, including such potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents as Mussman, Kelly Burke of Evergreen Park, Kathleen Willis of Addison, Martin Moylan of Des Plaines, Fran Hurley of Chicago (whose district also includes a considerable suburban area) and Sam Yinling of Crystal Lake, whose distirct is a bit farther out.
“I’ve heard of polls that say there isn’t a state in the country with an electorate as upset as Illinois’,” said one co-sponsor who asked not to be named. “The speaker likes to see his targets take popular stands on tax issues.”
The second thing that happened: The repeal effort picked up steam in the County Board.
The original bill passed only because Preckwinkle broke an 8-8 tie. Multiple board sources tell me there are at least nine votes for a repeal, but 11 are needed for an override if Preckwinkle were to veto the repeal. One of those votes might come from board Finance Chairman John Daley, who failed to return a phone call about whether he still backs the tax. Another is longtime ace Madigan precinct captain Ed Moody, who already has picked up a couple of re-election challengers. Commissioner Dennis Deer also reportedly is undecided.
Some surveys indicate the isssue is political dynamite. For instance, a survey conducted for the Illinois Manufacturers Association, which opposes the tax, found 65 percent of those polled were less likely to back Commissioner Stanley Moore when told he backed the tax, compared to 17 percent who were more likely.
Madigan already has begun using the issue in political races in the suburbs, one political consultant told me.
“Madigan does want the tax repealed,” said a board member who asked not to be named. “Otherwise, it’s just another Democratic tax. . . .Voters are taxed out.”
Preckwinkle has said she needs the tax to balance her budget despite approving a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike a couple of years ago.
“Cook County has a fiscal obligation to put forth and approve a balanced budget, which the president has done all seven years of her tenure. Her commitment to that obligation is unchanged,” said Schlickerman, the Preckwinkle spokeswoman. “We are crafting a budget that reflects the current landscape and working with each department to make sure the budget ultimately approved by the board this fall is responsible and provides vital services to our residents.”
If the board does not act on its own to undo the tax, the Springfield bill “will move right away,” said one county insider. But to become law, it would have to clear the Illinois Senate, where the political terrain is less certain.
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