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Editorial: A chance for a do-over on Cook County's soda tax

Friday, August 18, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

We have a question for the members of the Cook County Board who voted for the new penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened beverages.

Are you having second thoughts?

We hope so.

It would be hard — irresponsible, even — not to entertain doubts about the wisdom of that vote. Many things have come into focus since board President Toni Preckwinkle broke that 8-8 tie last November.

The Illinois Department of Revenue has settled the question of whether the tax can be applied to purchases made with food stamps. The answer is no. That means 872,000 people are exempt from the tax. That’s 872,000 people whose consumption of sugary beverages is beyond your overreaching grasp; 872,000 people who won’t be contributing to the $224 million you were counting on collecting next year.

When you voted for the tax, you thought you could hide it from consumers by instructing retailers to include it in the shelf price of the drinks. But the Department of Revenue says you can’t do that, either. It would require merchants to charge sales tax on top of the soda tax — an illegal double taxation. The tax has to be added at the point of sale.

Adding it at the checkout means the tax appears as a separate line item on the receipt. Uh oh. Customers who buy a two-liter bottle of pop for $1, for example, can easily see the 68 cents — 68 percent — that your colossal surcharge adds to their purchase.

Imagine the unspoken profanities that explode in the mind of a consumer who inspects the receipt after a weekly grocery run to find that the county tax on beverages rivals or even exceeds the sales tax on everything in the shopping cart.

Those double-takes also call attention to the other taxes itemized on the receipt, including the cumulative 10.25 percent sales tax.

These frequent reminders do not endear you to voters.

Nor do the obvious contradictions: If the aim of the tax is to reduce obesity, diabetes and heart disease, why tax Diet Coke but not chocolate milk? Sweet tea in a can but not sweet tea mixed to order? Beverages but not candy bars? How dumb do you think voters are?

Then there are all the errant charges, many of which can legitimately be blamed on retailers. (Really, Walgreens? You’re confused about seltzer water?) But applying the tax presents a genuine burden for smaller businesses with less sophisticated cash register systems. Confusion is still the order of the day.

Other unpleasant surprises: Yes, people are being taxed for ice. No, they don’t get free refills any more, at least not if the restaurant is following the law.

And here’s a truly unpleasant piece of information for you soda tax enablers: A We Ask America poll conducted earlier this month found that 87 percent of respondents disapproved of the tax — and 83 percent said they’d hold it against you at election time. That would be next year.

A second poll found deep resentment against Preckwinkle. Almost 85 percent of respondents said her tie-breaking vote made them less likely to vote to re-elect her.

So yeah, you might want to rethink your support for this supposed public health initiative.

The good news is that you have a chance for a do-over. Five of your fellow commissioners, all of whom voted against the tax the first time, are pushing an ordinance to repeal it. Voters will be watching closely when that measure comes up next month.

In the meantime, 45 state lawmakers have signed onto two nearly identical bills that would prohibit county governments from taxing sweetened beverages based on volume sold. Either bill, if passed, would wipe out Cook County’s tax retroactively.

We appreciate their motive, but we’re not crazy about the idea of state lawmakers pre-empting home rule to correct the excesses of local spendthrifts.

That’s what elections are for.

And 2018 is just around the corner.

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2017, Chicago Tribune

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