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The soda tax was repealed, but Cook County still has to find a way to fund the government

Sunday, October 15, 2017
Chicago Reader
by Ben Joravsky

In the wake of today's repeal of the Cook County soda tax, I'd like to give a shout-out to the Cook County Board commissioner who's been speaking the most sensibly on the issue of the county's need to pay its bills.

That would be Larry Suffredin, the pride and joy of Evanston. He was one of two commissioners who, in a 15-2 vote, decided against a repeal; the other was Jerry "Iceman" Butler.

So come on down, Larry, and get your prize—a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew! Soon to be soda-tax free!

The debate all began last November when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle twisted enough arms to round up the eight votes she needed to get the board to slap a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages sold in the county. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association delayed the tax's imposition with a lawsuit that ultimately failed. So it wasn't until August when I got to watch another rendition of one of my favorite moments: Local residents waking up to realize that while they were busy not paying attention, their government was up to no good.

In this case it was more like, Omigod, soda costs more! Gatorade, too?! That's an outrage!

Man, Chicagoans—and Cook Countians—are a trip. Torturing suspects in the basement of police departments? "Where's my remote control?" But tax their soda? "This is war!"

I admit I'm all over the map on the soda tax. On the one hand, I realize it costs money to run courthouses, jails, hospitals, and other county operations.

So we've got to tax something.

On the other hand, why put the tax burden on the poor? It doesn't get much more regressive than a tax on sweetened beverages, which hits everyone the same no matter how much you make.

But we're apparently incapable of imposing a graduated income tax—with the added revenues helping to fund county operations. So we're stuck with the flat state income tax.

The state can't get it together to create a LaSalle Street transaction tax. And it's too cautious to legalize marijuana and tax that. Meanwhile the county's too chicken to raise property taxes. As much as I bitch and moan about paying them, I must concede the property tax is less regressive than a tax on beverages. So here we are—stuck with regressive taxes like soda.

Once she realized she'd ignited a Big Soda-abetted tax revolt, Preckwinkle changed the subject. She started talking about how the soda tax was really a public health initiative to get people to stop drinking sugary beverages.

But even voters in Cook County were smart enough to see through that spin. If the tax works and convinces people to stop buying unhealthy drinks, the tax yield would steadily fall—and in a matter of years the county would be again looking for money to fund government.

At Tuesday's hearing, Suffredin pointed out that the county—soda tax or no soda tax—has to find a sustainable way to pay its bills. But his colleagues didn't seem to want to hear it. With the primary season just around the bend, their main objective was to undo the tax before it threatened their reelection.

Sooner or later something's gotta give. Government will either go bankrupt—which seems to be Governor Rauner's plan—or we're going to have to find the will or courage to pass a more progressive tax.

The attitude of state, county, and city officials toward funding government reminds me of those Hollywood players who chose to ignore evidence that Harvey Weinstein allegedly was sexually abusing women.

Denial may enable us to avoid upsetting confrontations, but only for so long.



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