Cook County Board repeals soda tax
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
by Rachel Hinton
A 15 to 2 vote cemented the fate of the county’s controversial sweetened beverage tax.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday repealed the controversial penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened beverages it passed last November.
Wednesday’s final action comes after a similar vote Tuesday in the board’s Finance Committee.
Tuesday’s vote had come after nearly five hours of public comment — featuring Cook County Clerk David Orr, Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown and Public Defender Amy Campanelli. Under the plan, the tax would remain in effect until the start of the new county fiscal year on Dec. 1.
Wednesday’s meeting was shorter, with fewer people signing up to speak about the issue.
The only vote against repeal Tuesday came from Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston). He was one of the two no votes on Wednesday as well. The other commissioner to vote against the repeal was Jerry “Iceman” Butler, D-Chicago.
In a statement, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle had expressed “disappointment” and challenged commissioners to fill the budget hole left by the loss of pop tax revenue.
Wednesday Preckwinkle said the board faced “tough choices” and needed to look forward.
“Last week I presented two paths and today the commissioners decided,” Preckwinkle said. “Some of the choices we have to make will be painful, but ultimately we have to have a balanced budget.”
The tax has been controversial since it was narrowly passed by the board after Preckwinkle cast the deciding vote when commissioners deadlocked on the measure.
The tide turned on the tax last Friday, when a bipartisan deal to rescind the tax was announced. The tax will stay in effect through the end of the county’s fiscal year — on Nov. 30.
Those in support of a repeal have more than enough support to override a Preckwinkle veto. That’s a major setback to Preckwinkle, who has argued that the tax was needed to avoid major cuts to the public health and safety sectors.
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Dueling ad campaigns have argued that the tax is either an onerous burden on consumers that is hurting small businesses, or a way to provide desperately needed funds and promote healthy choices and combat child obesity.
The Can the Tax Coalition, a staunch opponent of the tax that receives money from the American Beverage Association, said “beverage taxes just don’t work and we look forward to December 1st.”
Commissioners John Daley, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Stanley Moore, of D-Chicago, changed their stances last week, citing conversations with constituents. Another commissioner, Dennis Deer, D-Chicago, who joined the board after the tax was approved, also said he will vote against it.
After the repeal, commissioners will need to figure out how to fill the roughly $200 million hole they’ve blown into the budget.
In the 50 days the board has to figure out a new budget, Preckwinkle said no sector of county government is off the table. She also said commissioners and county departments should expect layoffs.
Commissioner Sean Morrison, who introduced the repeal motion, said now is the time to consider “appropriate fiscal solutions.”
Those who spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing urged the commissioners to balance the budget without causing irreparable damage to public departments that depend on funding the most.
“There will be massive layoffs and my office, in its present condition, would no longer exist,” Campanelli said, detailing the downward spiral the county could find itself in if the tax is passed. “Class action lawsuits would be filed not just against the county, but against me. Not representing the poor and the indigent is not an option — it’s constitutionally mandated.”
Supporters of the repeal talked about the effect of the tax on their sales numbers, and opponents said that the health of children and the general safety of the public would be at stake.
Morrison said that he heard both sides, and while he knows the six weeks of budget talks to follow Wednesday’s vote won’t be “an easy task,” this is the time for a “new fiscal course for Cook County.