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Commentary: Can the Cook County beverage tax by Sam Toia, John Coli Jr.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Sam Toia, John Coli Jr.

Cook County residents will wake up July 1 to find that overnight the price on hundreds of everyday beverages has gone up significantly. This is a result of the regressive penny-per-ounce beverage tax passed by the Cook County Board last fall. It applies to more than 1,000 beverages such as juice drinks, sports drinks, flavored waters, pop, iced tea — and even drinks with no calories and no sugar.

Cook County is hitting residents where it hurts the most: in their wallets. Those concerned about the clear potential for higher grocery bills, negative economic impacts and job losses from the tax should look no further than Philadelphia to find the canary in the coal mine.

Since Philadelphia instituted its citywide beverage tax in January, residents and consumers are leaving the city to purchase their beverages and more, while businesses and workers have experienced economic losses far greater than originally predicted. Specifically:

•Beverage sales plummeted as much as 50 percent at some local grocery stores, and local beverage distributors reported up to a 45 percent decline in sales, while sales increased at retail outlets just outside Philadelphia city lines.

•The equivalent of more than 400 jobs have been lost through layoffs and cutbacks in working hours at local retailers, restaurants and manufacturers.

Even more, Philadelphia's current revenue trajectory for the tax is not meeting the city's projections. Revenue brought in from the tax in March was $700,000 short of the city's $7.7 million projection.

Cook County's population is more than triple that of Philadelphia, and nearly half (48 percent) of the county's 5.2 million residents do not live in the city of Chicago, with many living on the county border. The negative impact of the beverage tax is going to be even greater here.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's office recently suggested residents will not "(make) a lengthy drive" to avoid paying the beverage tax. In other words, if you're a Cook County resident with limited shopping and transportation options, the county's message is simple: You're stuck paying more.

This is the wrong message to send residents and businesses. Rather than over-tax residents, hurt businesses and put jobs at risk, county commissioners need to create a welcoming environment for all. That starts by repealing the beverage tax.

Sam Toia is president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, and John Coli Jr. is president of Teamsters Local 727.

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