The Cook County Board on Wednesday delayed a vote on repealing the controversial soda pop tax, ensuring at least 27 more days of mailers, radio ads and TV commercials that aim to sway public opinion on the issue.
Sending the proposal to the county’s Finance Committee for an Oct. 10 hearing allows time for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s administration to conduct a financial analysis. Without one, a vote to repeal the penny-an-ounce tax on sugar- and artificially sweetened beverages could have faced a legal challenge.
“Ultimately, nobody wanted an up-or-down vote today more than myself, with the exception of nearly 90 percent of the constituents who oppose this regressive tax,” said Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Palos Park Republican and lead sponsor on the repeal ordinance. But “there is no political will here today to take up a repeal vote,” he added.
Wednesday’s anticlimactic committee referral came after more than two hours of testimony from members of the public that flooded the meeting. Scores of people who wanted to attend were turned away and left to listen to a loudspeaker broadcast in a hallway on the fifth floor of the County Building.
Beverage industry workers, retailers and suburban mayors were among the nearly 100 people who signed up to voice their opinions. Worth Village President Mary Werner said residents of her small town were driving 10 miles or more to buy their pop in Will County or Indiana.
“It would be bad enough if they were only buying their beverages, but they are so mad and they are so angry and they are so fed up with the taxes in Cook County, they are doing all their shopping, and while they’re there, they’re buying their gas as well,” Werner said.
County government union representatives, doctors and health care advocates, meanwhile, called on commissioners to keep the tax. Among them was Dr. Clare Crosh, a third-year pediatric resident at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn. She talked about an 11-year-old patient battling obesity who consumes too many sugary drinks and appears to be on the path to developing Type 2 diabetes.
“This tax will work,” she said, noting declines in sugary-drink consumption in other locales where similar taxes have been in place longer. “I’m asking for your help. I cannot do this alone. Pediatricians and clinicians cannot do this alone.”
Afterward, Commissioner and Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider of Bartlett expressed confidence that tax opponents would have enough votes to pass repeal next month.
But Preckwinkle had a different take. “We anticipate that we will continue to have the votes for a sweetened beverage tax,” she said.
Last November, she broke a rare 8-8 tie vote to approve the tax. It takes nine votes to repeal it, but at least 11 to override a Preckwinkle veto. She did not directly respond to questions about whether she would veto a repeal.
Two commissioners — Finance Committee Chairman John Daley, D-Chicago, and Edward Moody, D-Chicago Ridge — told the Tribune they were undecided on the issue. On Wednesday, newly appointed Commissioner Dennis Deer, D-Chicago, said he was “looking at all options.”
Whatever commissioners thought on Wednesday, their opinions could be swayed over the next month. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supports the tax, and opponents from the beverage industry coalition Can the Tax have committed $6.4 million toward dueling radio and TV ads on the issue. Representatives for both sides said after the meeting that their ad campaigns would continue.
In addition, Bloomberg has sponsored mailers backing the tax and pledged to spend “whatever it takes” to help those who voted for the tax survive any reelection challenges next year.
And on Wednesday, the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association announced the formation of the Government Accountability PAC, an independent expenditure committee that plans to spend money to unseat backers of the tax. The association also released examples of digital ads and mailers it was sending out.
That comes on top of the Citizens for a More Affordable Cook County Political Action Committee, which has pledged to back commissioners who support repealing the tax. Its treasurer is well-known Democratic attorney Michael Kasper, who counts the American Beverage Association among his clients.
And Preckwinkle has been out advocating for the tax, both to maintain county services and to help reduce sugar consumption-related ailments like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. She acknowledged Tuesday she has “work to do” to make her case before an October vote.
After a Wednesday breakfast speech at the City Club of Chicago, she told reporters she was still working to shore up the backing of the commissioners who voted in favor of the tax last time, saying she “let them know that I would be supportive and helpful of them in any way I could.” She also said she spoke with Deer. He replaced the late Robert Steele, who was absent from the original vote tax vote.
And she made it clear she will try to put the onus on tax opponents to prove their own financial plans.
“Those who support repeal will have to propose ways in which we will cut our programs and services to make up for the $200 million in lost revenue,” she said. “We’ll see what they come up with.”