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Welcome to Cook County, Mayor Bloomberg. You're getting played on the soda tax.

Friday, September 15, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, is free to write political checks all day long in Cook County. If he wants to contribute big bucks to support the county’s new soda tax, that’s his call. He’s committed to spending $5 million so far.

We’d just ask him, the way we’d ask any out-of-towner who seems unsure of local customs: You recognize you’re getting played, right?

In New York, Bloomberg surely knows to avoid sidewalk games of three-card monte. In Cook County, beware of politicians peddling tax increases. Whatever their stated motives, chances are that money disappears into the black hole of bloated county government spending.

The new Cook County penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages is misguided and unpopular, to the point that it’s headed for possible repeal next month. Some people count calories. We’re counting the days until Oct. 11 when the Cook County Board, meeting as a Finance Committee of the whole, is expected to take up repeal of the pop tax.

The penny-an-ounce tax is all kinds of wrong: arbitrary, unnecessary and unwieldy. It’s regressive, in that proportionally it takes more money out of the hands of the poor than the wealthy. It’s also terrible for business because the tax drives shoppers over the county or state line to buy beverages. Some restaurant and grocery owners say they are fed up enough with Cook County tax policies to stop putting businesses and jobs here.

A penny per ounce doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up, as does the cost to retailers of charging it.

Here’s the worst aspect of the soda tax, and this is where we question the involvement of the ex-New York mayor: It’s a form of bait-and-switch. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says raising the cost of sweetened beverages, including sugar, diet and sports drinks, is about promoting public health. The advertised logic: Raise the cost of unhealthy drinks, and thirsty consumers and their kids will choose better options.

But that argument doesn't hold water because the true driving force of this tax increase isn’t health. Hence the tax on diet drinks yet not on many sugary concoctions. This is all about the county’s alleged need for more cash. This tax increase will give Preckwinkle a projected $200 million a year. Lose the penny pop money, she says, and the county would be forced to fire county workers, including doctors and nurses. At a Wednesday hearing, we heard one member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees say the tax increase is needed to protect union jobs. Points for honesty.

Bloomberg is a true believer in using government power to influence the health habits of citizens. He’s perturbed by soda. As New York’s mayor, he tried to ban jumbo-sized sugary drinks, a move rejected by the courts. Bloomberg contributed millions to pass soda taxes in Philadelphia, San Francisco and elsewhere. Now he’s pouring money into Chicago broadcast ads and mailers while promising to spend “whatever it takes” to support the campaigns of County Board members who may face anti-soda tax opponents in 2018.

Again, that’s his choice, as is the decision by opponents, including the beverage industry, to wage a repeal campaign. But Bloomberg is being bamboozled. If he were interested in spending money on a public health initiative in Cook County, we could point him to others, including anti-violence programs rather than this dishonest grab for dollars. It's not even logical as a health initiative. It applies to bottled Starbucks Frappuccinos but not those prepared by baristas at Starbucks locations. It applies to soda but not fruit juice, which is loaded with sugar. The tax can't be charged on purchases made through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, so 872,000 county residents are exempt.

Few people support this tax. A We Ask America Polls survey commissioned by the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association found that 87 percent of respondents disapproved of the tax. But here comes Bloomberg, whose wealth buttresses some County Board members. They should think hard about what their constituents want (repeal), not whether they can rely on a New Yorker’s political largesse to survive the 2018 election.

Maybe Bloomberg doesn’t recognize what's going on here. It could be he doesn't realize that compared to financially sound New York, Cook County is desperate for easy lucre. He wants to see people make healthier diet choices. Cook County Board members want money, including his.

Mayor Bloomberg, you're getting played.

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

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