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Why I voted to keep Cook County's soda tax

Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Commissioner Larry Suffredin

The most important role of a county commissioner is to pass a yearly budget that meets the needs of the residents and fairly balances services and costs.

I voted Wednesday — along with Commissioner Jerry Butler — to keep Cook County’s sweetened beverage tax because it was a tax on a small number of people rather than a general sales or property tax on all. This tax had a twofold purpose: First, it provided enough revenue to balance our 2017 budget without gimmicks. Second, it helped us fight the increase in heart disease, diabetes, obesity and osteoporosis and the high cost of treatment.

Unfortunately, repeal of the sweetened beverage tax also repeals the law that prohibited the raising of any taxes by Cook County until after 2020. This tax limitation covered property taxes, sales taxes and home-rule excise taxes. The repeal of the tax limitation means all taxes are in play.

The functions of county government are often unknown to our own citizens because only a small percentage of citizens are directly involved in public safety or public health services. More than two-thirds of the county budget goes to public safety and public health.

Public safety, through the chief judge, sheriff, medical examiner, state’s attorney, public defender and circuit court clerk, provides our frontline of defense to lawlessness and violence in our communities. Public health, through the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, provides our frontline of care to the 1.1 million residents of Cook County on Medicaid as well as others who are without any form of medical coverage.

The budget process involves weeks of hearings and discussion on what is the best mix of taxes, fees and grants to fund a balanced service budget. This process has safeguards to protect against excesses. I have always been very active in the budget process, offering more tax savings and service modification amendments than most commissioners. The agreement to prohibit further taxation until 2020 came out of the budget process.

The key to the 2017 budget was a new sweetened beverage tax, which — like other excise taxes on liquor and tobacco — was reasonable. The budget this tax would have supported did the following:

• Streamlined our workforce, which in the last five years has been reduced by 6,300 full-time jobs.

• Stabilized our Cook County Health and Hospitals System staffing to meet changing patient needs.

• Increased the use of CountyCare dollars to reduce the dependency on county taxpayer support to $111 million from $400 million.

After the 2017 budget process was finished, the following occurred:

• When proposed, the sweetened beverage tax covered all purchases. The Obama administration told the county that SNAP recipients — that is, food stamp users — could be taxed. Unfortunately, the Trump administration changed that.

• The implementation rules were more complex than many retailers could handle with their point-of-sale systems.

• Rules confusion led to a lawsuit in which the retailers sued and initially won and then lost and then appealed.

• After the imposition of the tax on Aug. 2, both opponents and supporters of the tax started a barrage of TV, radio and print ads and mailers. Unfortunately, the messaging created many misunderstandings about the tax.

Finally, the will of the board changed on this tax. It was repealed. I voted to keep the tax because it was a reasonable tax with prohibition on further tax increases, and it is bad policy to change taxes outside the budget process.

Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat, is a Cook County commissioner for the 13th District.

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