After hours of impassioned comments from opponents and supporters of the controversial sweetened-beverage tax, Cook County commissioners voted Wednesday to send a potential repeal to the Finance Committee.

The contentious subject matter meant that by the meeting’s 11 a.m. start, the county board room was at standing-room only capacity and a crowd of supporters and dissenters were left to mingle outside the chambers.

Many in the throng of 100 toted signs to “support healthy kids” or “choose Cook County businesses,” and people were cycled in and out of the room so they could get their say.

Though big rallies by the industry-backed “Can the Tax” coalition have been more visible, there were plenty of tax supporters at the lectern on Wednesday.

“I choose the lives of our children over these jobs,” Reshorna Fitzpatrick, a pastor at the Stone Temple Church said, addressing those against the penny-per-ounce tax.

“We can create more jobs, but we can’t recreate our children.”

Others who spoke in support of the tax touted its health benefits — sugary beverages are often linked to obesity, diabetes and other health problems. Ads in favor of the tax, which are backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, say that the tax can reduce “the epidemic of childhood obesity and diabetes” by providing money “to support Cook County hospitals.”

Supporters of the repeal — which included the soda industry, mayors of small towns and business owners — say the tax is literally driving business out of the county.

Tim Banks, who does business operations for four Culver’s restaurants, said that as a result of the tax, he and his team have decided not to build anymore restaurants in the county.

“The stated goal of this tax is to influence the choice of which beverage our customers purchase,” Banks said. “Unfortunately, it’s influencing which town they’re purchasing it in. The result is lower sales for our restaurants and others in the county.”

Business owners and the beverage industry failed to get the nine commissioners they needed to vote to bypass the committee and put the repeal up for a vote Wednesday.

The Finance Committee isn’t scheduled to meet until next month, which likely means more ads from both sides.

Last year, eight commissioners voted in favor of the tax, and eight against, leaving Board President Toni Preckwinkle to cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of the penny-an-ounce tax.

In response to the continued split in votes, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association announced the launch of its “Government Accountability PAC,” on Wednesday which is aimed at “unseating members of the Cook County Board of Commissioners supportive of the county’s harmful penny-an-ounce sweetened beverage tax.”

The association owns We Ask America, which conducted polls on public opinion on the soda tax.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association took the county to court just days before it was supposed to go into effect July 1, alleging that the tax ordinance was unconstitutionally vague. Circuit Court judge Daniel Kubasiak ruled in favor of the county. Calls for a repeal of the tax swiftly followed its Aug. 2 implementation.

“Until the repeal is law, Can the Tax and its supporters won’t stop educating the public, media and elected officials about the harmful effects of the beverage tax and call for its repeal,” the group – which receives funding from the American Beverage Association – said in a statement.

“The choice is clear. It is time for president Preckwinkle and the county board to move on and repeal this damaging tax before it does more harm.”

Can the Tax has led many rallies against the tax.

 

About 100 people couldn’t get into Wednesday’s Cook County Board meeting. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Preckwinkle said in a press conference that there is still work to do, and she would continue to be “advocate-in-chief” and continue providing a “safety net for Cook County’s most vulnerable residents.”

“A vote to repeal the sweetened beverage tax isn’t just a vote to repeal the tax,” Preckwinkle said after the board meeting. “It’s a vote to fire front-line health care workers. A vote to repeal this tax is a vote to compromise our constitutional duty to provide for the legal defense of those who cannot afford council.”

When asked about plans for if the tax is repealed, Preckwinkle, who spoke at the City Club of Chicago in the morning, would only say that she continues to believe that she will have support for the tax.