Supporters, opponents of soda tax pack County Board meeting for repeal vote

Cook County commissioners began to formally consider a repeal of the county’s controversial sweetened beverage tax on Wednesday.

The measure is scheduled be introduced before the full board later today, and then is expected to be referred to the county’s finance committee for a vote in the coming weeks.

Before that measure is considered, more than 90 members of the public supporting and opposing the tax that went into effect last month were scheduled to speak, packing the board room and spilling into its hallways as they wait their turn.

“Although this regressive tax has only been in effect a short time, it appears that many consumers are crossing county borders to purchase items being taxed and are also buying others items leading to an ultimate loss of tax dollars to our neighboring counties and states,” reads the repeal ordinance sponsored by commissioners Sean Morrison of Palos Park, Tim Schneider of Bartlett, Richard Boykin of Chicago, Jeffrey Tobolski of McCook and John Fritchey of Chicago.

If the measure receives the necessary nine of 17 board members’ votes, repeal of the tax would go into effect immediately, but could be vetoed first by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Cook County became the largest jurisdiction in the country to place a tax on sweetened beverages late last year. The penny per ounce tax applies to regular and diet soda as well as a number of other sweetened drinks.

Originally scheduled to go into effect in July, implementation of the tax was put on hold for a month due to a suit by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which said the tax was unconstitutional.

The suit was dismissed and the tax was put into effect after a month, but an appeal is pending.

Preckwinkle, a Chicago Democrat who supports the tax, said the $225 million it’s expected to bring in will prevent countywide cuts to hospitals, the state’s attorney’s office and the county jail.

Blowback over the tax has turned into a nationally watched battle. Initially, several stores and restaurants throughout the county imposed the tax incorrectly or failed to do so at all.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, has announced he’s spending $5 million on television and radio ads defending the tax as a key ally in the fight against childhood obesity. And Preckwinkle has enlisted the local support of African American pastors at churches throughout the county, who say the tax will have a positive effect on the health of their parishioners.

Members of the beverage and retail industries and local business owners have launched their own campaign to repeal the tax, with radio and television commercials, as well as polls that suggest commissioners who voted for the tax could lose their seats over the issue in next year’s election.

At the meeting on Wednesday, Worth Mayor Mary Werner said her residents were being “hurt by this tax every day” — bringing with her 23 pages of angry comments from constituents who were shopping outside of the county, both in neighboring Will County and Indiana.

Meanwhile, Pastor Reshorna Fitzpatrick of Stone Temple Church in Chicago said “sugary sodas are causing health issues that we can prevent if we do our part.”

In addition to presiding over Wednesday’s board meeting, Preckwinkle also was scheduled to deliver remarks to the City Club of Chicago.

According to prepared remarks released by her office, Preckwinkle described a repeal as the county “willing to go backward and let Cook County become sicker, less safe and less efficient.”

To commissioners considering this action, she warned, “a vote to repeal is a vote to fire front line health care providers: doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who help serve our most vulnerable patients.”

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