Preckwinkle: Soda tax was all about money, and the county needs it

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County Board President Toni Preckwinkle | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Wednesday refused to forecast the outcome of a vote next week that would roll back the a controversial “soda tax,” or whether she would veto a repeal if one passes.

But a day ahead of making her budget address to a Board of Commissioners said to be lined up for a close vote on pulling back the county’s penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and sweetened beverages, Preckwinkle was not shy about saying what would happen without the estimated $200 million in tax revenue projected to come from the tax.

“(We will) make significant cuts to public health and public safety, because that’s where 87 percent of our money goes,” Preckwinkle told reporters, following an unrelated press conference on criminal justice reform.

Preckwinkle will release her budget at 10 a.m. Thursday, an hour before her formal budget address. The county board could vote on repealing the tax on Tuesday.

Preckwinkle has traditionally given her budget address in October, but this year’s budget rollout comes the week before a vote on repealing the tax is set to come before the county board.

The tax narrowly passed last year with the president casting a tie-breaking vote. Furor over the tax, stoked in part by a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign by soda industry groups, reached a fever pitch this summer, when consumers around the county first saw the beverage tax tacked onto their grocery receipts.

Preckwinkle reminded commissioners of the financial implications for the county if the tax is pulled back in a fiscal note sent out Friday, which said the county health system and public safety funds, which were slated to receive 75 percent of the new soda tax revenue. The lost revenue would require an 11-percent cut to those departments’ budget, according to the memo.

The cuts are in line with those Preckwinkle demanded this summer, when soda tax revenues were briefly choked off by a beverage industry lawsuit. Those cuts were largely reversed when a judge lifted an injunction on tax receipts, though some non-union workers did not get their jobs back.

Wednesday, Preckwinkle also was clear that, despite an advertising campaign pushing the health benefits of drinking fewer sugary beverages, the tax was always intended as a way to put more money into county coffers without even less-popular options such as raising sales tax across the board or hiking property taxes.

“We chose as a revenue generator a sweetened beverage tax, which had been enacted around the country, both for the revenue and for the health benefits,” she said. “But first and foremost, for the revenue.”

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