Cook County Board repeals soda tax

Cook County's tax on sweetened beverages has been controversial.
| Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A 15-2 vote cemented the fate of the county’s controversial soda tax.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday repealed the penny-an-ounce levy on sweetened beverages it passed last November.

The final action comes after a similar vote Tuesday in the board’s Finance Committee.

That vote came 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. Under the ordinance, the tax would remain in effect until the start of the new county fiscal year on Dec. 1.

Wednesday’s meeting was shorter, with fewer people signing up to speak. Only two “no” votes were cast — one from Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston), who also voted against a repeal during the Tuesday session, and the other from Jerry “Iceman” Butler (D-Chicago).

Opponents of the soda tax brought “thank you” signs to Wednesday’s meeting. | Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times

After the board voted, Preckwinkle said commissioners faced “tough choices” and needed to look forward.

“Last week I presented two paths and today the commissioners decided,” Preckwinkle said. “This contentious fight is now behind us, but what’s ahead of us is a very tough budget season. Some of the choices we have to make will be painful, but ultimately we have to have a balanced budget.”

The tax has been controversial since it was narrowly passed by the board. Preckwinkle cast the deciding vote when commissioners deadlocked on the measure.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association filed a lawsuit against the county on June 30, the day before the tax was initially supposed to be implemented. The group won a temporary restraining order before a Circuit Court judge allowed the extra penny-an-ounce fee to go into effect on Aug. 2.

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Since then, 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, said “beverage taxes just don’t work and we look forward to Dec. 1.”

Tanya Triche Dawood, vice president and general counsel of the merchants association, said the repeal was a “long time coming.”

“The right result happened today,” Dawood said. “The people spoke and this is a huge victory for them and the businesses in the county. Hopefully now they are able to return to providing services like they were before.”

There was an overflow crowd at Tuesday’s Finance Committee meeting. | Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times

The tide turned on the tax last Friday, when a bipartisan deal to rescind it was announced. The tax will stay in effect through the end of the county’s fiscal year.

Commissioners John Daley, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Stanley Moore (D-Chicago), changed their stances last week to support the repeal, citing conversations with constituents. Another commissioner, Dennis Deer, D-Chicago, who joined the board after the tax was approved, also voted for the repeal.

In the 50 days the board has to figure out a new budget, Preckwinkle said every sector of county government is on the table. She also said commissioners and county departments should expect layoffs.

“Over the next six weeks, we’re going to have to work very carefully with our separately elected officials,” Preckwinkle said. “I can’t say that anything is off the table. I intend to work with the commissioners. We’ll see what they come up with now that we’re $200 million short.”

Commissioner Sean Morrison (R-Palos Park), who introduced the repeal motion, said now is the time to consider “appropriate fiscal solutions.” He was optimistic about the upcoming budget talks, saying “this is the time for a new fiscal course for Cook County.”

“We can find $200 million,” Morrison said. “This is a new horizon for Cook County and if we think outside of the box we can come up with things.”

Previously from Chicago News