The nationwide debate over whether to tax sugary beverages is set to play out Thursday in the Cook County Board room, with commissioners divided on a measure that Board President Toni Preckwinkle is counting on to balance the books.
The Tribune on Wednesday identified eight commissioners — all four Republicans on the board and four Democrats — who have decided to vote against the measure or are leaning that way, which could leave Preckwinkle with a razor-thin margin on the 17-member board.
“I think the vote is going to be extremely close,” said Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski, D-McCook, a Preckwinkle ally who has nevertheless decided to vote against the tax. He cited opposition from business owners in his west suburban district. They let him know they are feeling financially stressed by last year’s increase in the county sales tax, coupled with newly approved county requirements to provide paid sick leave and a higher minimum wage, he said.
Thursday’s scheduled vote comes months after Philadelphia approved a similar tax and just days after an election in which voters in four cities — San Francisco, Oakland, Albany, Calif. and Boulder, Colo. — approved taxes on sugary beverages. But Cook County, with a population of 5.2 million, has more residents than all those cities combined
It’s an idea backed by the World Health Organization, which says it reduces consumption of sugar that can contribute to diabetes, obesity and tooth decay. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to enact the so-called Big Gulp Ban in his city, only to have it struck down in the courts, and he has spent $1 million on ads supporting the tax in Cook County and millions more in other locales around the nation.
But the tax is opposed by the well-financed American Beverage Association, which has spent millions, including more than $600,000 in Cook County, to oppose the sugary beverage taxes. The ABA and its supporters, including the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, say it’s a regressive tax that hurts working families by reducing the workforce in the soda industry.
Preckwinkle’s motivation admittedly is first and foremost about raising revenue, although she says it has the advantage of reducing soda consumption and in turn leading to better public health.
“The additional revenue that would be produced by the tax on sweetened beverages would help the county confront its fiscal challenges not only in FY 2017, but in the succeeding two fiscal years while avoiding devastating cuts in public health and public safety,” Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan said in a statement Wednesday. “A tax on sweetened beverages could have an added benefit of reducing obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems among our residents.”
But the tax, like the one enacted in Philadelphia, would apply not only to beverages with added sugar, but also to drinks with artificial sweeteners — including pop, sports drinks, lemonade and ice tea.
“Diet drinks don’t lead to obesity or cause diabetes, but they would be taxed as well,” said Commissioner Richard Boykin, D-Oak Park, who said he’s leaning against it.
“The people of the county and the city of Chicago are being crushed by taxes, fees — nickel and dimed — all from expansive government,” Boykin said. “I’ve sat through four public hearings. I’ve met with a bunch of people in the district. I received an overwhelming number of phone calls from people saying, ‘Please don’t raise the tax on these drinks.'”
If commissioners were to reject Preckwinkle’s proposal, she would find herself in a predicament. She’s counting on the tax, which is projected to bring in nearly $224 million annually, to balance three years of budgets, starting with the one for the fiscal year that begins Dec. 1.
But it’s a tough vote for commissioners, who just last year approved a penny-on-the-dollar increase in the county sales tax, which led to Chicago having the highest such tax of any big city in the United States. The July 2015 vote on that tax, too, divided commissioners — with just nine of 17 signing off.
Complicating the upcoming vote was the health of Commissioner Robert Steele, D-Chicago, Preckwinkle’s floor leader, who was in the hospital earlier in the week. Whether he would be able to make what could be a long meeting, with at least two dozen people signed up to speak and much debate anticipated, was not certain. Steele on Wednesday did not respond to inquiries from the Tribune.
He said Wednesday that he was weighing his concerns about county layoffs against worker reductions in the beverage industry, as well as the affects of sugar on diabetes, which he identified as a problem in the Latino community.
“I’m gonna sleep on it, have a good breakfast and make my decision tomorrow,” Arroyo said.
Source: Chicago Tribune