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Why the Cook County Soda Tax lost its fizz

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Kevin Williams

COOK COUNTY | On Wednesday, a 15-2 vote to repeal the Cook County sugar tax on Dec. 1 was a magnanimous effort by the beverage and restaurant industries, Democrat and Republican and commissioners and a few unlikely politicos.

Republican Tim Schneider and his three allies on the Cook County Board expended significant energy this year trying to convince Democratic colleagues the proposed penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax would hurt their districts, and possibly their political standing.

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle described the repeal as a result of “tax fatigue” explaining that residents are frustrated with rising local, county and state taxes. “We’re in an environment where people don’t like taxes but want critical services, which creates a great tension if you’re trying to run government at any level.”

However, the Republicans opposed to the tax are the minority on the 17-member board, as well as in the 9-8 vote in favor of the tax.

“I don’t think my Democratic colleagues thought they were actually going to lose money” said Schneider, of Bartlett, as shoppers went elsewhere and businesses felt a sharp drop in retail sales.  Schneider gave credit to the beverage industry who created an “awareness program”.  Then the American Beverage Association’s Can the Tax Coalition stepped up to make Cook County the example against expansion of soft drink taxes around the nation.  As a result of Can the Tax, “commissioners who supported the tax were inundated with mail, commercials and calls. They started feeling the heat.” Schneider said.

Cook County Commissioner, Richard Boykin (1st District), who represents Proviso Township has been a vocal opponent of the sugar tax since its proposal, criticizing board president, Toni Preckwinkel, on its merits.  “What I’ve always said is that this pop tax must go,” Boykin said. Boykin, who recently withdrew his bid to run for board president against Preckwinkle, presented a 10-point plan in an interview with West Suburban Journal’s Mike Sandrolini to balance the budget without the tax. Boykin and other commissioners called for the repeal at Wednesday’s County Board meeting.  Commissioner Sean Morrison, Palos Park, (R) said of the collective and bipartisan effort, “We really worked in a contemporaneous fashion to repeal the tax.”

Central to the repeal were thousands of calls from residents and business owners to Commissioner John Daley (D).  Many of those calls, Daley said, came from employees of Chicago’s South Side Pepsi plant who feared losing their jobs. Others came from residents and store owners who he describes as “very concerned, vastly opposed to the tax.”  Daley said he never heard and felt such backlash in his political career.  Daley, a key ally of Preckwinkle, announced earlier this month that he would support the repeal, others quickly followed suit.

United Democrats and Republicans defeated former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who poured an estimated $13 million to keep the tax, a part of the billionaire businessman’s campaign to reduce the obesity epidemic in the U.S.

David Goldenberg, spokesman for Can the Tax, said the coalition rode the wave of “universal outrage” against the tax through Cook County and across socioeconomic lines.  At its apex, it helped set up an environment where Preckwinkle’s bid for a third term in 2018 is expected to be her toughest yet because of her stalwart support of the tax.

Preckwinkle, described the repeal as a result of “tax fatigue” explaining that residents are frustrated with rising local, county and state taxes. “Taxes are not popular, particularly in this country, and we’re in an environment where people don’t like taxes but want critical services, which creates a great tension if you’re trying to run government at any level,” she said in an interview.

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