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Commission votes 15-1 to can soda tax, but can it survive a veto vote?

The Cook County soda tax is one step away from repeal after commissioners on Tuesday favored doing away with the controversial tax in a key test vote.

The County Board Finance Committee voted 15-1 for a measure that would do away with the penny-an-ounce tax on sugar- and artificially sweetened beverages, with final action expected at Wednesday’s board meeting.

“The Cook County Board has heard you loud and clear. . . . Opposition has been strong and consistent across all segments of our county,” said Republican Commissioner Sean Morrison of Palos Park, the lead sponsor of the repeal measure.

Democratic Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski of McCook pushed back against the contention that county government cannot do without the money the pop tax generates.

“Our focus needs to change from the Cadillac plan to the one that we can afford,” Tobolski said. “We gotta take the $200 million out of the budget. That’s what we gotta do.”

“This is not our money,” added Tobolski, who said it was “being taken from the working families of Cook County.”

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle does not attend committee meetings, but in recent days she has tried to make the case that the $200 million a year she expects the tax to generate is needed to prevent slashing vital public health and criminal justice programs. She has said across-the-board cuts of 11 percent could result if commissioners repeal the pop tax.

Preckwinkle has not indicated whether she intends to veto the repeal measure, and she wasn’t commenting Tuesday. Repeal backers, however, have more than the 11 votes it takes to override a veto.

Tuesday’s committee vote came after 13 elected and appointed officials who oversee their own large bureaucracies lined up personally or through representatives to say how axing the tax would effect them.

Only Treasurer Maria Pappas said it was no problem because she was prepared to cut 12 percent from her budget. “I’m opposed to the soda pop tax,” she said.

Assessor Joe Berrios, a close Preckwinkle ally, said he would have to close suburban offices, lay off employees and require others to take unpaid furlough days. “It’s gonna hurt,” he said.

That prompted Commissioner Timothy Schneider, a Bartlett Republican and pop tax opponent, to decry a “sky is falling” mentality. “It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “We don’t have to cut our core services.”

Commissioner Richard Boykin, an Oak Park Democrat and repeal co-sponsor, echoed Schneider.

"The reality is there is a lot of waste in a $5 billion budget, and the Cook County taxpayers expect us to get that waste out of the budget,” Boykin said. “We're not going to scare people and say we're gonna push granny off the cliff."

Other officials also warned of significant layoffs, but only Public Defender Amy Campanelli, who is appointed by Preckwinkle, and a representative of the county Health and Hospitals System, expressed support for the pop tax.

County Clerk David Orr declared the pop tax “dead” even before the vote, but was careful not to fault Preckwinkle for proposing it. “I believe the president, right or wrong, had to find some revenue that was needed," he said.

The board initially approved the pop tax last November, when Preckwinkle broke a rare 8-8 tie as one commissioner was absent that day. But the tax wasn’t supposed to take effect until July 1, and even that was delayed a month by a lawsuit.

A furious backlash began even before the tax started showing up on receipts, and was further stoked by a multimillion-dollar repeal campaign funded by the American Beverage Association.

At Preckwinkle’s request, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire public health advocate, weighed in, spending more than $10 million on radio and TV ads touting the health benefits of reduced sugar consumption.


©2017 the Chicago Tribune

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