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County Board moves to kill pop tax

Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Bowing to the political tide, the Cook County Board has taken the first step toward junking the penny-an-ounce tax on soda pop and other sweetened beverages.

The board's Finance Committee voted 15-1 to repeal the levy after hours of debate. The only member voting against the repeal: Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston.

Today's action is certain to be binding, since all commissioners are members of the Finance Committee.

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“This is a very sweet day for the people of Cook County,” declared suburban Republican Tim Schneider, who backed the repeal and voted against the levy when it was first enacted last year.

“I've heard from the people in my district and they overwhelmingly oppose this tax,” said Finance Committee Chairman John Daley, a Chicago Democrat.

Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has staked her $5 billion budget and political reputation on passing and retaining the levy, did not attend the hearing.

Aides had said she would not comment until the full board takes up the repeal at its meeting on Wednesday, but later issued a statement effectively saying a veto is off the table. "We are abundantly clear that 15 commissioners voted to repeal the tax. That is four more than are needed to override a veto. Our energies are best spent moving forward and working with commissioners on the difficult decisions that they now have to make in order to protect and preserve critical county services."

Preckwinkle could veto a repeal from the full board, but she may not bother since it appears she does not have enough votes to prevent an override, which only requires 11.

Now we're likely to see weeks of wrangling over whether the board should find at least a partial replacement tax to make up for the $200 million a year the soda levy was projected to garner, or whether to implement cuts throughout county government. The repeal will not go into effect until Dec. 1.

Elected county officials were divided today on how bad the damage will be, with Treasurer Maria Pappas saying she'd be able to make the required cuts to her spending, and representatives of Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans and State's Attorney Kim Foxx predicting a devastating impact on their offices.

Preckwinkle has argued the levy mostly was about health, aimed at discouraging consuming products linked in some studies to obesity and diabetes. But the tax also applied to low-calorie artificial sweeteners, and either way, critics contend, it was intended to raise revenue for government regardless of its impact on Cook County retailers.

The battle has pulled in huge outside spending, with the soda industry and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg each fueling millions of dollars in TV ads this summer and fall.

More to come.

Earlier coverage:
Pop tax still unpopular as repeal vote nears, poll finds
Preckwinkle: Keep it, or here's what could suffer
Preckwinkle's out of good options
Here's how pop tax war is playing out in campaign cash
Poll slams pop tax

4:40 P.M. UPDATE:

The upcoming debate on whether and how to cut $200 million from the budget could be lively, and already is showing signs of turning snippy.

For instance, one of Preckwinkle's strongest allies on the board, Commissioner Deborah Sims, a Democrat who represents portions of the South Side and southern suburbs, noted that most elected officials who testified said losing the tax would hurt their offices but still endorsed or remained neutral on the repeal.

Among those in the first camp were Sheriff Tom Dart and Assessor Joe Berrios. In the latter camp were Foxx and officials from the county's health system.

“If they aren't willing to stand up in support of their budget, why should I?” Simms pointedly asked. “It's not right for that nine of us (the tax originally passed with nine votes) to take the heat for everyone.”

But Commissioner Bridget Gainer, a North Side Democrat, said the upcoming debate is “an opportunity” to reinvent county government. “There are so many (potential savings) for us to look at in the budget,” she said.

But the overwhelming message of the day was that commissioners like Daley had received an earful from voters over the levy, and felt they had no choice but to retreat.

“It doesn't matter whether you tax tea, or sugar. Eventually people get fed up,” said West Side Democrat Richard Boykin, who voted against the levy last year and briefly pondered running against Preckwinkle in next year's election on the soda-tax issue.

Though some of the revenues from the taxes go to support Stroger Hospital and other health services, “Many of my constituents are suffering from another illness: tax fatigue,” said Northwest Side Democrat John Fritchey. “I cannot in good conscience add to their suffering.”

In testimony, the board also heard from a parade of business people, most of them in retail, about how their customers now are fleeing to surrounding counties and Indiana, buying not only pop but anything else that will fill in their trunk.

But Suffredin said he was “proud” to be the only vote in favor of retaining the levy, and said people in his North Shore district agreed with him, and Bloomberg, that the tax will discourage unhealthy conduct.

Countered Schneider, “I chose to listen to the people of Cook County rather than some mayor of New York."

Here are some pols reacting to the tax before the final vote was tallied:

Suffredin (said may live in "bubble" in Evanston): "I am proud to be the only person who will vote no" on repealing Cook County #sodatax

— Amanda Vinicky (@AmandaVinicky) October 10, 2017

.@RichardRBoykin calls scare tactics of cuts w/o #SodaTax "shameful." "The sky is not falling, we're not going to close trauma centers"

— Amanda Vinicky (@AmandaVinicky) October 10, 2017

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