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Cook County Budget Relies on Obamacare to Plug Shortfall

By Ted Cox | October 18, 2012 4:47pm
 Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle presents her 2013 executive budget proposal. Her Chief of Staff Kurt Summers is seated to the left.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle presents her 2013 executive budget proposal. Her Chief of Staff Kurt Summers is seated to the left.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CHICAGO — Can Obamacare help close Cook County's estimated $268 million budget gap? County Board President Toni Preckwinkle thinks so.

Though her 2013 budget includes new tax proposals on cigarettes, guns and ammunition, Preckwinkle said the expansion of health care within the Affordable Care Act was the primary way she would balance the 2013 budget.

"We anticipate that we'll get the waiver in the next couple weeks," Preckwinkle said.

That waiver will produce $99 million in funding, and Preckwinkle said the county had it coming, as the Health and Hospitals System delivered $500 million in uncompensated health care last year.

Preckwinkle has received state permission to pursue a federal waiver allowing the county to enroll 100,000 people early in the Medicaid expansion.

The total budget comes in at $2.949 billion, down $5 million from last year.

Preckwinkle's proposed budget would also add a dollar to the county's $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes, and would impose a tax of a five cents per bullet and $25 per gun sold within Cook County.

The rationale for both is for buyers to pay for the eventual costs of their products.

"If you choose to smoke," Preckwinkle said, "you should have a hand in paying for the health-care consequences of your decision."

Preckwinkle has justified the "violence tax" on guns and ammo by pointing out that the county shoulders a disproportionate burden for treating gunshot victims at Stroger Hospital. She said the average gunshot victim cost $52,000 to treat, and 72 percent had no health insurance.

But suburban Republicans have complained it taxes legal gun owners for city crime and would only drive those gun owners across county lines to buy guns and ammo. Republican County Commissioner Timothy Schneider has specifically said the Cabela's outlet in his 14th District would likely be driven out of business by the tax.

"I would be astonished if this had the effect of driving gun stores to other counties," Preckwinkle responded.

The budget will also generate an extra $1.3 million through a tax on gambling machines and another $1 million by leasing out the top two floors of the county's Dunne Building at 69 W. Washington.

Preckwinkle trumpeted the final end of the Todd Stroger sales tax imposed by her predecessor — to be fully rolled back with the New Year — and that, while eliminating 452 vacant positions, the budget calls for only 10 layoffs, after her first two budgets required a total of 1,000 layoffs countywide.

She said she had no qualms about basing the budget on Obamacare.

"I expect the president to be re-elected," she said. Asked about Mitt Romney's promise to roll back health-care reform on his first day in office if elected, Preckwinkle replied, "He doesn't understand how the federal government works."