Liquor tax can be avoided

By Editorial Board

The Cook County Board voted overwhelmingly to approve a $2.9 billion budget on Nov. 18. The budget, which was $500,000 less than five years ago, shows how tenaciously Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has reduced spending in the famously bloated county government. The budget even came with a reduction in the much-hated sales tax, which had elevated Chicago’s tax burden to the lofty status as highest in the nation. However, Preckwinkle did insert a 50 percent hike on county liquor taxes, which have already been raised four times since 2005.

It’s easy to rely on a sin tax instead of raising taxes on the entire population when all other options have been exhausted. But there are still options out there, one of which has been gaining momentum recently. Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey joined the growing list of local officials who are calling for the city of Chicago to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana instead of raising liquor taxes to plug the budget hole, and that is the right solution.

Fritchey proposed an amendment to the budget that would allow for the liquor tax hike until Chicago decriminalized marijuana, at which point the tax would be repealed. That reality might not be far away. Alderman Daniel Solis (25th Ward) introduced an ordinance in the City Council on Nov. 2 which states that anyone caught with less than 10 grams of pot would be fined $200 instead of being arrested. A number of prominent aldermen have signed on as co-sponsors.

Under the ordinance, marijuana would in no way be legal or for sale at any establishments. But the savings from not prosecuting thousands of marijuana arrests each year—the vast majority of which get thrown out anyway—would be more potent for the budget than a liquor tax hike. Prosecuting marijuana arrests costs the county $57 million to $78 million per year. Even if only a small percentage of the arrests are for under 10 grams, the savings would still be greater than what the tax hike would bring in, which the county estimates at $11 million per year.

Preckwinkle herself has called on Chicago to decriminalize pot, and other high-profile politicians have followed her lead. This is further evidence that now is the time to get over marijuana-phobia. Opponents of the ordinance claim that decriminalization reduces the severity of the crime, and in a way they’re right—it shouldn’t be that serious of a crime to begin with. Chicago’s aldermen should do the right thing and vote for Solis’ ordinance. In this new age of austerity, where politicians have to start looking under proverbial couch cushions to find extra change, it’s great to see creative ways to ease deficits.