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Four weeks to kill the soda tax

Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

With both sides steadfast yet lacking the votes to prevail, Cook County Board members on Wednesday kicked to next month a decision on whether to repeal the unpopular soda tax. The board is expected to take action at its Oct. 11 meeting.

In other words, soda tax opponents: You’ve got four weeks to keep up the pressure. Don’t let up. Kill this arbitrary, unnecessary, expensive tax.

The penny-an-ounce soda tax that kicked in Aug. 2 spawned deep and bitter backlash among Cook County shoppers. In addition to a lawsuit filed by a retailers association, County Board members who voted for the tax in November 2016 have been inundated with complaints and threatened with ouster in next year’s elections. Polls show that threat is real.

“The only way to repeal the tax is to replace the commissioners,” Chicago activist Andre Smith said during three hours of public testimony Wednesday.

Smith said he intends to run for the West Side-based 2nd District seat, challenging new Cook County Board member Dennis Deer, who joined the board in July. Deer is one of two commissioners who are particularly vulnerable on this issue. The other is Edward Moody, who represents south Cook County, which gets pounded by competition from Indiana. Moody voted in favor of the tax last year but is facing intense pressure to flip his vote.

Hear that, tax opponents? Deer and Moody. Oh — and a third commissioner who helped install the tax, Luis Arroyo Jr., may be more vulnerable than he realizes. Give them a call, why don’t you? Call them all. Light up their phones.

Board President Toni Preckwinkle has ceded no ground, despite polls showing that the tax is deeply unpopular. So far, millions of dollars in television ads financed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have not convinced Cook County residents that the tax is necessary.

A We Ask America poll conducted in early September showed that 88 percent weren’t buying Preckwinkle’s claims that the tax was motivated by health concerns, and 85 percent want it repealed. In an earlier poll, 83 percent said the soda tax would influence their vote next year, when Preckwinkle’s and all board seats are up for election.

The backlash from constituents has not stopped Preckwinkle from doubling down. At a news conference Wednesday, she said she would be forced to fire county workers — including doctors, nurses, public defenders and corrections officers — if the tax, expected to generate roughly $200 million annually, is repealed.

“A vote to repeal … is a vote to fire frontline health care workers,” she said.

Her threats, naturally, brought out unionized county workers to advocate in favor of the tax. Some of them wore T-shirts that read, “Support Healthy Kids.”

Because, you know, it’s for the children.

At least one member of the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees, however, testified that the tax needed to remain in place to protect union jobs.

What was that about the kids again?

Commissioner Richard Boykin and other opponents believe there are ways to eliminate the soda tax and maintain the same level of county services within the existing budget. In July, Boykin recommended streamlining county purchasing, reducing litigation and overtime costs, instituting a countywide hiring freeze and cutting 1,500 positions that are funded but vacant.

Preckwinkle said she doubts his changes would be enough to fill the budget hole and if he thinks otherwise, “Prove it up. I don’t think he can.”

Full stop right there. Preckwinkle is playing an old Cook County game: Pretend that every single dollar, every single job slot, every single expenditure, absolutely has to be in a proposed annual budget. And pretend that raising more revenue is the right answer.

So she’s challenging opponents of the tax to show how Cook County can live without it?

Make it work, opponents.

And voters, let’s insist. You have four weeks.

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

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