Cook County Beverage Tax Fizzles

Oct. 6, 2017
Repeal likely for one-cent-per-ounce tax on even zero-calorie drinks.

The controversial beverage tax in Cook County (which includes Chicago) is likely to be repealed, as a veto-proof majority of county commissioners has committed to voting against it. The short-lived tax, on a number of drinks, not just those sweetened with sugar, will likely expire Dec. 1.

The Chicago Tribune today (Oct. 6) reported 12 of the 17 commissioners will vote to the repeal ordinance in two key test votes next week. It takes 11 votes to override a veto, which has been indicated by board president Toni Preckwinkle.

Preckwinkle broke an 8-8 tie to approve the tax in November 2016.

The county's budget relies on the expected $200 million a year in revenue generated by the penny-per-ounce tax on sugar- and artificially sweetened beverages. Preckwinkle warned that eliminating the tax would result in 11 percent across-the-board cuts that would greatly impact the county's health care and criminal justice systems.

The tax raised ire even before it was instituted on Aug. 2. While proponents touted it as a way to combat childhood obesity and other costs falling on the county's health system, it also taxed zero-calorie beverages that were sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners. For an off-brand, two-liter soda, which occasionally goes on sale for 69 cents, it imposed 68 cents in new taxes, not counting the regular county sales tax of 9 percent (most of that is state and local taxes, and there's a lower rate for qualifying "food" purchases). A 12-pack of soda cans cost an extra $1.44.

Opponents criticized it as a thinly disguised way to raise millions to plug county income shortfalls.

Michael Bloomberg, who as mayor of New York promoted a city soda tax and supported a statewide tax effort (both of which failed), spent millions of his own money supporting the Cook County tax. His TV commercials featured health care workers and morbidly obese children. The food industry, especially the American Beverage Assn., spent similarly to repeal it. The public outcry was clearly against it.

Beverage taxes are in effect in Philadelphia; Seattle; Berkeley, Calif.; Albany, N.Y.; and Boulder Colo.; and San Francisco's is to take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

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