With a 15-1 vote, the Finance Committee of the Cook County Board of Commissioners sent the sweetened beverage tax swirling toward the drain on Tuesday, setting in motion a likely repeal of the controversial penny-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks.
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 — the committee voted to sunset the tax by Dec. 1.
The only nay vote on the repeal came from Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston).
The committee’s decision precedes a vote by the full Board on Wednesday. But the full board comprises the same commissioners eligible to vote Tuesday.
In a statement, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle expressed “disappointment in today’s outcome.”
“Today the board exercised its collective will and set in motion a repeal of the sweetened beverage tax we approved last year,” Preckwinkle said. “As I outlined last week, it is up to the commissioners to choose our direction on revenue, and I respect their authority to do so.”
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, “applauded” the passage of the repeal.
“Today’s action by the Finance Committee is a critical step to ending Cook County’s unfair, over-reaching and unpopular beverage tax,” the statement said. “Commissioners were listening and common sense has prevailed.”
The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce also commended the vote. Michael Reever, acting president of the chamber, said “businesses and consumers have faced a cumulative impact of new taxes, fees and regulations which have taken its toll. This was the tipping point.”
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.
Commissioner Sean Morrison, who introduced the repeal motion, said now is the time to consider” appropriate fiscal solutions.”
“We have to look at where cuts can come from,” Morrison said. “Every single Cook County mechanism is up for review, we have to look at all noncritical areas.”
Those who spoke during the 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.
“I’m going to demand a zero-based budget in 2018,” Morrison said. “Today, I’m pleased for taxpayers. This has lifted a dramatic burden off of Cook County residents.”