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Cook County Soda Tax: Boykin Fights To Repeal Measure

This story originally appeared at patch.com

CHICAGO, IL — If former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is going all-in to keep the Cook County sweetened beverage tax alive, Commissioner Richard Boykin is upping the ante. Boykin (D-Oak Park) is set to present an ordinance Wednesday to repeal the controversial sweetened beverage tax. Scores of residents are expected to attend the meeting and make public comment. Will it result in a vote? Will it result in a repeal? Boykin hopes so.

Boykin strongly opposes the sweetened beverage tax and he says 90% of Cook County residents do too. In an interview with Patch Tuesday, Boykin questioned the motives of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and of Michael Bloomberg, who ponied up $5 million of his personal money to fund commercials that present the sweetened beverage tax as a way to combat obesity.

He said, “You see an industry that is an easy picking industry. If [they’re] concerned about sugar consumption why aren’t donuts being taxed? Why aren’t HoHos being taxed? I think President Preckwinkle thinks we’re stupid. She thinks the taxpayers are stupid.”

“Nobody Wants To Be Penalized for Drinking a Diet Coke”

It doesn’t make sense to the Commissioner that Diet Coke and Gatorade are taxed. “Nobody wants to be penalized if they’re drinking a Diet Coke,” Boykin said, sharing a story of when he spoke with veterans who lamented the fact that diet Coke is taxed (despite the fact that, as he notes, Diet Coke contains no sugar). He said those veterans chose not to pay an additional 12 cents for a 12 oz. bottle of Diet Coke that was once a treat they enjoyed.

The Vote To Repeal

Cook County residents and business owners are expected to pack Wednesday’s meeting, where Boykin thinks there’s a 50-50 chance of a vote taking place. He says many board members who initially voted in favor of the tax have changed their stance after pushback from constituents.

Even if Boykin gets the nine votes he needs to make the repeal official, it then precariously lands in the hands of Preckwinkle, who will likely veto it. It’ll then take 11 board members to override the veto, so Boykin is keeping his fingers crossed. If Preckwinkle were to veto the measure, it could really harm her chances for re-election in 2018.

A Proactive Approach

Boykin added that if Cook County wants to fight obesity, it should focus on eliminating food deserts in communities like “Austin, West Garfield, Lawndale, where people don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables and an opportunity to make good choices about food.” Boykin believes the county should take a more proactive approach instead of instituting a regressive tax.

He said Cook County needs to “invest money in parenting to help teach parents to [help their children make healthier choices” and in “public health education in schools, in the homes, and of course the elimination of food deserts. That’s the only way you’re going to get at reducing obesity.”

Potential Economic Repercussions

Beyond the personal effects of the sweetened beverage tax, Boykin believes Cook County is at risk of losing business. “I know when you have regressive tax like this that it opens the door for a slippery slope of regressive taxes,” he told Patch. “I don’t think that’s the role of government… to tell people what they can and cannot drink.”

Many residents have resorted to buying soda and other taxed beverages outside of Cook County. “All you’re doing is sending them to DuPage County, to Will County, to Indiana.” Once consumers are in other counties buying soda, he says, they’ll be more inclined to buy other groceries and to dine in those counties. “We’re gonna lose sales tax, lose beverage tax. We’re gonna struggle.”

Defeating the Purpose

Boykin said the county will reveal how much it’s made off the soda tax at tomorrow’s board meeting. He mentioned that if the county does not gain the $200 million it hopes to from the sweetened beverage tax in the 2018 fiscal year, Preckwinkle will resort to layoffs. To Boykin, this defeats the intent to fight obesity and reveals an interesting conundrum. If Cook County doesn’t want residents to consume sweetened beverages, why does so much hinge on reaching that $200 million profit?

Boykin’s 10-Point Plan

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Boykin presented a 10-point financial plan as an alternative to the sweetened beverage tax. According to Boykin, Cook County needs to redirect its focus and find other sources of income.

Boykin said Cook County needs to “develop a strategy to make Cook County a truly business friendly economy” instead of imposing “nickel and dime taxes that hurt the people.”

He proposed an immediate hiring freeze on government positions and the elimination of vacant positions that are still in the budget for elected officials. “If we close those [vacant] positions we will save more than 60 million dollars, the savings could be substantial.”

Boykin also suggested that the county start from scratch with a zero base budget each fiscal year. “Every budget season we start with zero for each department and make sure that everything allocated is truly essential.”

Possible Bid For Preckwinkle’s Position

There’s been buzz that Commissioner Boykin may challenge Preckwinkle for the position of Cook County Board President. I asked Boykin’s staff whether this was in the works.

They said, “he’s thinking about it” and that we’ll find out by the end of September whether Boykin plans to run. If he does and gets elected, it’s likely one of his first orders of business will be to repeal the sweetened beverage tax if a vote doesn’t go through Wednesday.

>>Patch Editor Joe Vince contributed to this article

>>Image provided by Office of Commissioner Boykin

What did you think?

Originally published September 12, 2017.

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