Shaw: Some Beverage Tax Homework For Cook County Leaders

Retailers are reeling and consumers are complaining about the beverage tax, but are the Cook County commissioners listening?

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BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw assesses the Cook County soda tax's next steps in his bi-weekly column for Crain's Chicago Business.


I wonder if the outrage over Cook County’s sweetened beverage tax is any less intense than the anger in 1773, when colonial rebels dumped tea from British ships into Boston Harbor to protest England’s imposition of the dreaded Tea Act.

Maybe not, but times change, and today’s activists are more likely to stage quotidian demonstrations and vent on social media than dump cans and bottles of soda in the Chicago River. And local pundits would rather inundate us with imagery than incite insurrection.

“Can the tax” because “it’s hard to swallow” and leaves “a bad taste in your mouth,” they write. Anger is “bubbling up,” opponents are “popping off” and support for tax proponents is “fizzling out.” Okay, I’ll put a lid on it.

But the Boston Tea Party was no joke, and neither is a penny-an-ounce tax that can hike the cost of beverages more than 50 percent.

That hits low and moderate-income families hard, and polls indicate nearly 90 percent oppose the tax. Most say they’d consider voting out the county officials who support it.

Meanwhile, we’re subjected to competing million-dollar-plus ad campaigns paid for by business groups that oppose most taxes, especially ones that depress sales, and New York’s billionaire ex-mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who argues for the tax on health grounds—excess sugar contributes to diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Both sides are pledging millions more to influence next year’s elections.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, architect of the beverage tax, echoes Bloomberg’s health concerns, but she’s not taxing sugary juices and coffees, or pies, cakes, ice cream and candy. But she is taxing sugar-free soda. Go figure.

And my question, from a Better Government Association watchdog perspective, is simple: Is the tax necessary?

Preckwinkle says “yes”—claiming she’s eliminated waste, cut jobs, embraced efficiencies, raised other taxes, and still needs another $200 million a year to prevent hundreds of layoffs of doctors, nurses, public defenders, jail guards and other key personnel.

Anti-tax politicians, including one current and one former county official, say “no”—Preckwinkle’s trying to save an unnecessary tax by scaring people.

Chicago Congressman Mike Quigley, who authored two “Reinventing Cook County” reports when he was a commissioner more than a decade ago, recommended dozens of reforms aimed at saving more than $100 million a year, and he says county officials haven’t implemented enough of them: “We haven ‘t modified or redesigned local government in 120 years, so we have a short term crisis exacerbated by the absence of long-term solutions.”

Commissioner Richard Boykin, who’s talking about challenging Preckwinkle for County Board President next year, says the soda tax can be repealed without forcing layoffs by imposing a hiring freeze on non-essential county jobs, eliminating vacant positions, reducing overtime and litigation costs, and streamlining county purchasing.

Preckwinkle calls Boykins’s suggestions “vague and general—a roadmap in search of an actual map.” She also claims to have implemented many of Quigley’s recommendations.

So here we are, a few weeks before commissioners decide whether to modify, reduce, repeal, replace or keep the tax, and it’s time for facts, not rhetoric, as county officials revisit the nagging questions they didn’t adequately address before it was adopted.

I’ve mentioned most of them, and the venue for this conversation is a County Board Finance committee hearing on Oct. 10. That gives Preckwinkle and all 17 commissioners time to do their homework—crunch numbers, weigh options, listen to stakeholders and ask questions—before making a fair and defensible decision that reflects the good government we’re entitled to.

If they can deliver on that challenge I’ll drink to it.

About the Author
  • Andy Shaw

    Andy Shaw is an award-winning Chicago journalist who spent 37 years covering local, state and national politics, business, education, and day-to-day news at the City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7, before joining BGA.