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House Republicans to introduce bill to block Cook County pop tax

State Reps. Michael McAuliffe (R-Chicago), at podium, with from left, Christine Winger (R-Bloomingdale), Peter Breen (R-Lombard) and Grant Wehrli (R-Naperville), propose new legislation that would block the Cook County Sweetened Beverage Tax. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Five Republican members of the Illinois House of Representatives introduced a bill that would kill Cook County’s tax on sweetened beverages.

Four of them — Michael McAuliffe (R-Chicago), Christine Winger (R-Bloomingdale), Peter Breen (R-Lombard) and Grant Wehrli (R-Naperville) — discussed the legislation at a news conference Tuesday morning at the Thompson Center. Also sponsoring the bill is Keith Wheeler (R-Oswego).

House Bill 4082 would prevent any home rule county from imposing a tax on sweetened beverages based on volume sold. The bill applies to any county ordinance adopted on or before the effective date of the bill, which would repeal the existing Cook County ordinance.

“The tax is another cash grab at the expense of those who can least afford it,” Winger, who represents the 45th district, said.

Winger went on to say that in parts of Bartlett, Illinois, which is part of DuPage, Kane and Cook Counties, sales have dropped around 80 percent because people are choosing to go elsewhere or are not buying sweetened beverages.

The penny-per-ounce tax, which went into effect Aug. 2, has been a headache for some Cook County residents and businesses. On Aug. 7, a customer sued Walgreens for adding the tax onto his unsweetened beverages.

A day later, McDonald’s was accused in a suit of improperly applying the tax as part of the subtotal and, Aug. 9, a lawsuit filed against 7-Eleven stores alleges that the tax is applied to its oversized cups whether or not the drink in them is sweetened.

Toni Preckwinkle, county board president, has said that the tax would bring in much-needed revenue to help balance the county’s books.

“Republicans in Springfield went 736 days without a budget, imperiling the state’s fiscal stability and essential government services because they were unwilling to make the tough choices necessary to govern,” Frank Shuftan, chief spokesperson for Preckwinkle, said. “Their press event today is just that, a ploy for media attention. Cook County will continue to do the hard work required to protect health care and public safety measures for all our residents.”

The tax covers carbonated soft drinks (whether sweetened with sugar or a sugar substitute), sports drinks and energy drinks. Fruit drinks also are taxed, but 100-percent fruit juice are exempt.

A group of Illinois retailers made a last-ditch effort to halt the rollout of the tax, calling it confusing and “unconstitutionally vague.” The Illinois Retail Merchants Association was granted a temporary injunction that delayed the tax, but a judge eventually let it take effect earlier this month.

And in another wrinkle, the Illinois Liquor Control Commission sent a letter to Preckwinkle in June raising concerns that the law may lead some merchants to inadvertently violate the Illinois Liquor Control Act.

That’s because SNAP purchases are exempt from the tax, and retailers who sell sweetened beverages to SNAP recipients may seek a refund or credit from the distributor, which violates a clause in the act.

Shuftan said that the county “will arrange a meeting to hear [the industry group’s] concerns.”

Breen reiterated that the tax could drive people out of the county to do their shopping and it creates a questionable image for county families.

“Isn’t it incredible that we’re getting to a place where, because of our taxes, a can of Budweiser is going to cost less than a can of Coca Cola?” Breen asked. “What kind of message are you sending to your children and your community?”