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How will Cook County survive without the soda tax? Let's find out.

Thursday, July 06, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

Cook County officials are looking for spending cuts to make up for $67.5 million they were counting on collecting by the end of November from their now iffy penny-an-ounce soda tax. They'll also be getting new budget targets for fiscal year 2018, in case that $200 million doesn't come through either. Good.

This is a useful exercise, whether or not Circuit Judge Daniel Kubasiak eventually lifts the brick on this cowardly tax.

In a lawsuit, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and a handful of grocers say the county's vague and contradictory "sweetened beverage tax" violates the uniformity clause of the state constitution. They've asked the judge to throw it out.

Kubasiak put a temporary hold on the tax on June 30, the day before it was supposed to take effect. He said the county had no workable plan for refunding the taxes if the suit is successful, which he suggested is not an idle proposition.

The retailers "have persuaded the court that a fair question exists as to the constitutionality of the sweetened beverage tax," the judge wrote.

We'll let the lawyers argue over whether the tax is constitutional. There's no question it's wrongheaded and dishonest. It was sold as a public health initiative, a pitch that rings hollow when you look at the list of what's taxed and what isn't. Starbucks bottled Frappuccino? Yes. Frappuccino prepared by a barista at your local Starbucks? No. Pre-sweetened iced tea drawn from an urn at a restaurant? Yes. Sweetened iced tea hand shaken behind a counter? No. The tax applies to zero-calorie diet soda but not to fruit juices, which are loaded with sugar and not much else; read the label if you doubt it. So no, this isn't really a war on sugar (or obesity). If it were, there would be thousands more items to tax.

Under federal law, the new tax can't be charged on purchases made with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits, or food stamps. Call it a health initiative or call it a money grab, but 872,000 people in Cook County are exempt.

Here's what the soda tax is really about: It provides cover for Cook County Board members who don't have the guts to pass an honest tax.

In a letter to the editor chiding us for our last editorial on this subject, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle helpfully restated our point for us. "Given our continuing revenue challenges, my preference would be to look at the property tax, which Cook County has not increased since 1996," she wrote. "But as I have told the Editorial Board on numerous occasions, not one commissioner will vote for a property tax increase." We rest our case.

To be clear: We are not urging the County Board to raise property taxes. We think the county should learn to live within its means. But if board members truly believe they need more money to pay for vital services that are provided to all residents, they should pass an across-the-board tax. They don't dare.

Regardless of how the lawsuit shakes out, Judge Kubasiak has done board members a favor by giving them an early look at what will happen if their measure achieves its stated goal. If Cook County residents stop drinking soda (or, ahem, buy it elsewhere), the board will have to do without that money — or find something else to tax. Might as well start thinking about it now.

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.



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