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MIHALOPOULOS: Just one switched vote on county board could end pop tax

Friday, August 25, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Dan Mihalopoulos

All you need is one.

To end Cook County’s wildly unpopular tax on sweetened beverages, it would take a change of vote by just one of the county commissioners who supported the measure when it was approved last year by the narrowest of margins.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle cast the deciding vote on the penny-an-ounce pop tax in November after commissioners deadlocked on the issue. Despite the furious public backlash, no commissioners have indicated that they would abandon the cause.

“I remain committed to my vote in support of it,” says Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the Chicago Democrat who is Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s floor leader. But some other county commissioners won’t even say how they feel about the unpopular pop tax. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

“I remain committed to my vote in support of it,” says Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the Chicago Democrat who is Preckwinkle’s floor leader.

“I’m exactly in the same place,” says Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston. “It was the right vote then and it’s the right vote now.”

Commissioner Stanley Moore, D-Chicago, says he wouldn’t change his vote because there’s no plan to make up for the lost revenue if the tax were repealed.

“I understand it’s not popular,” Moore says. “But no one is addressing what we’re supposed to do. It’s not possible to cut your way to solvency.”

Commissioner John Daley, a Chicago Democrat, told a colleague he remained in favor of the tax a couple weeks ago.

Daley didn’t return calls or emails seeking his current position on the tax. He wasn’t alone. It seems the rest of the commissioners who voted for the pop tax would rather spend a few nights in the Cook County Jail than talk about the divisive topic.

Their reticence about discussing the pop tax, while understandable in the current political climate, won’t save them from being listed again here. My requests for interviews on the summer’s hottest political topic went ignored by pop-tax backers Luis Arroyo Jr., D-Chicago; Jerry “Iceman” Butler, D-Chicago; Edward Moody, D-Crestwood; and Deborah Sims, D-Posen.

Another commissioner avoiding my calls and emails was Dennis Deer, D-Chicago. He was not on the board yet at the time of last year’s vote but later replaced Robert Steele, who was in the hospital at the time of the pop-tax vote and died in June.

Commissioner Sean Morrison: Some commissioners “strongly rethinking” their votes to pass the pop tax. | Provided photo

Still, Commissioner Sean Morrison — the Orland Park Republican who recently introduced a repeal measure — says he’s hopeful of change after conversations with some of his colleagues who had supported the tax initially. Though he wouldn’t name names, Morrison says some commissioners are “strongly rethinking” their position in favor of the tax.

They will be up for re-election next year. Sources say beverage industry groups have reached out to local political consultants, asking them to help potential challengers to the pro-tax commissioners.

“I’m of the belief there will be some movement on the issue,” Morrison says.

Outside the county board, it isn’t hard to find politicians of both parties who wish to distance themselves from the pop tax.

“I would never have supported it,” says Mike Quigley, a Democratic congressman from the North Side who’s a former Cook County commissioner.

Quigley says the county and all other state and local governments here must make big changes before looking at new sources of money to plug budget shortfalls. The county is expecting the tax to bring in about $225 million a year.

“Your short-term crisis is because of the lack of long-term planning and restructuring,” Quigley says.

Preckwinkle doesn’t seem to pick many fights — but she’s also far too stubborn to back down from a battle when she thinks she’s right, even as polls show this issue has severely dented her popularity.

“We know the commissioners are under a lot of pressure from ‘Big Soda,’ ” Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan says. “We hope they will be supportive of retaining the tax if and when the issue comes up.”

Worth Mayor Mary Werner says her “Can the Tax” T-shirt got her banned from fund-raiser for County Commissioner Edward Moody. | Provided photo

Mary Werner, the mayor of Worth, tried to show her opposition by wearing a “Can the Tax” T-shirt to a campaign kickoff fund-raiser for Moody at a restaurant on Aug. 17. She says she had a complimentary ticket but was turned away at the door by the commissioner’s brother.

“I was told my ticket was null and void and I’m not welcome,” Werner says.

She and friends who were with her that night went to sit in another part of the restaurant. They joked that Werner would have to pay the “Preckwinkle tax” on a Pepsi she ordered.

Werner says she got the chance to express her opposition to the tax to Preckwinkle when the county board president arrived for Moody’s fund-raiser. Werner says many of her constituents are now shopping for all of their groceries — not just pop — outside the county, starving her village government of crucial revenue.

Before long, police asked her and her party leave the restaurant entirely, Werner says. They protested on the sidewalk outside the fund-raiser.

“People walking by gave us the thumbs-up,” she says. “I haven’t found one person in favor of the tax.”

The only thing that could make a difference, though, would be finding one more commissioner who no longer favors the pop tax.


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