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MITCHELL: County’s soda tax is still difficult to swallow

Thursday, September 07, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by mary Mitchell

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Maybe I shouldn’t drink pop.

Maybe I should stick to coffee or water.

But darn it, can’t a grown woman make that decision for herself without being taxed?

Although you’re more likely to find a bottle of Pinot Grigio in my grocery cart than a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi, the Sweetened Beverages Tax is getting harder to swallow.

Retailers started collecting the $0.01 per ounce tax last month after a lawsuit against the county was dismissed.


I resent that the county dressed up this regressive tax as a critical health issue, when the real reason for the tax is to raise revenue.

This is how cigarettes went from 60 cents in the ’60s to nearly $12 a pack today.

The heavy taxation certainly saved lives as more and more people kicked the habit.

But it also spawned an underground economy where people hustle single cigarettes — loosies — on street corners.

Ironically, really poor people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to buy pop are not charged the county’s beverage tax.

And, yes, broke folks could skip the fizzy bottled drinks and pick up a package of Kool-Aid — the kind that requires that you add sugar.

But why would they feel good about that when the suits and pumps stop at Starbucks daily and no one is looking over their shoulders to see how much sugar is in their costly lattes.

It is also disturbing that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is spending more than $2 million on an ad campaign to back the pop tax.

It’s his money, but I can think of a lot better ways to help the children of Chicago get healthier than tacking more taxes on their parents’ grocery bills.

Frankly, the main problem I have with the county’s Sweetened Beverage Tax is what I call the “Todd Stroger” factor.

Remember him?

County County Board President Toni Preckwinkle beat Stroger in the 2010 Democratic primary by hammering him for his 1 percentage point increase in the county portion of the sales tax.

Prior to the soda tax, the “penny-on-the-dollar” sales tax was the least popular tax. True to her word, Preckwinkle had it repealed.

However, five years after trashing Stroger on this issue, Preckwinkle pulled off the biggest political tour de force in recent years by talking the board into restoring the hated tax.

The pop tax, however, appears to have cost Preckwinkle.

A poll of 902 voters conducted last month by “We Ask America,” a subsidiary of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, found 68 percent of registered Cook County voters disapproved of Preckwinkle’s job performance and 75 percent said they likely would not vote to re-elect her.

It’s worth noting that the Illinois Manufacturers Association is an ally of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, the main opponent of the Sweetened Beverage Tax.

Still, Preckwinkle’s plunge is significant since she has been favored as the most viable candidate to challenge Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Stroger isn’t surprised that his one-time political nemesis is getting such strong blowback.

“The soda tax is like a lot of things that have happened. You tell people you are doing it for one reason and in the end it is really, I need money,” he said during a telephone interview.

“They are pushing it as a health issue, but if it were a health issue, it wouldn’t target only soda. It would target candy bars and all the other things. We are afraid to do the things we need to do and it makes us act in desperation,” he said.

Stroger said if the soda tax were truly about health, it probably would have originated out of the health system.

The soda tax “came out of the [Cook County Board] because they had $200 million hole, and had to figure out some way to pay for this,” he said.

“Do you feel vindicated?” I asked.

“I knew from the beginning we did what was needed, and I believe a lot of people also believed that. I knew they couldn’t function. I wouldn’t call it vindication. It was just showing this actually made sense,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’s watching this latest political drama unfold on Facebook.

“I’ve seen people that are as apolitical as they get and they are making posts showing their receipts and the [total] tax is 2/3 of the price of the whole bill. I can see this becoming a real revolt.

So go ahead. Take a big gulp.


Just know that’s really what Cook County government is counting on.

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