CHICAGO (CBS) — The battle over Cook County’s sweetened beverage tax has showed no sign of fizzling out, and opponents have forged ahead with an effort to get rid of it.
Tuesday morning, opponents held a protest rally to call on county commissioners to repeal the penny-per-ounce tax that has proved extremely unpopular with voters.
Hundreds of retail workers and small business owners who say they have suffered from declining soft drink sales gathered outside the Thompson Center, across the street from the County Building, a day ahead of a possible repeal vote.
Protesters held up signs and banners asking commissioners to “choose Cook County businesses.”
The sweetened beverage tax has been in effect for a little more than a month, yet many business owners have said sales have dropped significantly.
“The residents of Cook County, their jobs and businesses are being hammered by this unfair, overreaching, illogical beverage tax,” said Sam Toia, Illinois Restaurant Association.
Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin has said the county should repeal the tax, and on Tuesday he unveiled a 10-point fiscal plan to make up for the $17 million in monthly revenue that would be lost if the tax goes away.
Boykins’ plan includes a hiring freeze, closing vacant positions, and holding the line on salary increases.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has defended the tax, saying it helps promote better health, and is needed to help the county’s finances. She has said it’s a better option than other possible tax increases.
However, Boykin said the tax will backfire on Preckwinkle.
“Her whole premise is is that she hopes the tax will cause people to drink less of this product. Well, if they drink less of it, guess what? We don’t get the revenue that she said that we need to realize in order to fund county government,” he said. “So guess what? We’re going to be at the same place in a few months down the road, when she says that we don’t get that revenue, that individuals are going to be talking about laying folks off. That’s irresponsible.”
A reporter noted Boykin’s 10-point plan sounded a bit like a campaign platform, and Boykin did not reject the notion.
“Toni Preckwinkle and this unfair pop tax must go, and they must go right now. The reality of it is is that we’ll make a decision on whether or not we’re running for county board president. That’s a press conference for another time. Right now, I want to focus on a fiscal roadmap forward for the county,” he said.
But in a visit to the eye clinic at Provident Hospital, Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the tax would help prevent some of the eye diseases treated at the clinic, many liked to diabetes and a high-sugar diet.
And she added, don’t expect an up or down vote on the soda tax on Wednesday.
“My expectation is we will follow the regular order of business and the matter will be referred to finance for consideration,” Preckwinkle said.
Supporters of repeal say Preckwinkle wants the issue referred to Committeee because she doesn’t have the votes to defeat it outright.
Coca-Cola employee Claudia Stachacc said sales in Cook County have dropped about 25 percent from the time the tax kicked in.
“They don’t want to pay the tax. I mean, I go to the store, and I don’t want to pay the tax either. So I go outside of Cook County to buy my stuff, too,” she said.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent $5 million on ads supporting the tax, claiming it is all in the name of health. He has said he plans to put out even more ads, urging the county to keep the tax in place.
Boykin said there’s a 50-50 chance the full County Board will vote on the repeal plan on Wednesday if commissioners want to rush this process.
The standard procedure would be for the board to send Boykin’s proposal to committee for debate, and then bring it to a vote of the full board in October.