Cook County residents are in trouble. On Tuesday, the County Board Finance Committee voted 15-1 to repeal the sweetened beverage tax before the entire board of commissioners officially vote at Wednesday’s board meeting.
There will be crucial cuts to the 2018 budget according to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle when the repeal is in place—taking away crucial funding. The repeal looks very evident as more Cook County Board Commissioners shift sides which they previously approved, potentially bringing $200.6 million in revenue for county services.
In one of the most highly visible challenges from the public since former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger’s penny sales tax proposal—the second term President finds herself on a similar hot seat.
“If you want good government, you have to pay for it,” says Preckwinkle.
“At the beginning of this budget, we’ve identified basically a shortfall of $115 million which is the smallest one since I took office in 2010. When we started out, it was $487 million in the first year and that was a nightmare. Currently, we are at $115 million and we closed that gap largely by sweeping vacant positions.”
She says they eliminated 254 positions since the County’s first budget in 2011, reducing the workforce by more than 10.3 percent. Very aware of the public backlash to the push back on the additional sweetened beverage tax, Preckwinkle stands solid on serious lay-offs that will result from the $200 million deficit.
“Without this revenue there’s almost $200 million that we’re going to be short. We’ve already made $150 million in cuts and without revenue, we’ll have to make almost $200 million more, which will be a nightmare.”
She feels it’s important for the public to understand the responsibilities of the county and why there is a necessity in additional revenue. Two of the main factors are public safety and public health.
“I think people understand city government a little better than they do county government. The fact that city government is police, fire and garbage collection. But what the county does isn’t always clear to people,” she explains.
“Unless you talk to folks about the fact that the health care system, which serves us, and the criminal justice system, which is sometimes a challenge for our community, but nonetheless you know it’s the criminal justice system where most of our money goes… I think it’s not always apparent to folks,” Preckwinkle says.
“The fact that most of the people in the jail are Black and Brown. It’s overwhelming. I remind people we have a county that’s 25 percent Latino, 25 percent African-American and 6 percent Asian. It’s a majority of people of color who are in [county] jail. Eighty-six percent of the people are Black and as I said, it’s the poorhouses at the intersection of racism and poverty. When we have to make 200 million dollars in cuts, it’s going to come out of our health care system, which serves our community, and it will have to come out of our criminal justice system, which imperils the progress that we’ve made in criminal justice reform. This is going to be a real challenge.”
The real challenge was convincing the public why this particular sweetened beverage tax aka the “soda tax” was being pushed as an alarm to child obesity, diabetes and other health concerns in the Black and Latino communities. The Michael Bloomberg sponsored commercials were aired non-stop on Chicago television stations pushing Black faces on supporting the tax. But as taxpayers complained about confusion about natural sweeteners versus preservatives, adding the penny per ounce tax to additional taxed receipts—enough was enough. Opponents of the tax such as Commissioner Richard Boykin, who has opposed the proposal from the beginning, had various reasons.
“I opposed the sweetened beverage tax because it is regressive and because it threatens our small businesses. But those of us who oppose also have a corresponding obligation to propose solutions. We need a common sense alternative fiscal blueprint for Cook County with alternate sources of revenue and savings,” said Boykin in an official statement.
Preckwinkle refutes this claim. “I said from the very beginning this is about revenue. When I gave my budget address, I said we have a $200 million gap to close. We’ve already made $67 million in cuts. We need revenue. I proposed it from the beginning and I said this is about revenue—secondarily it has health benefits.”
Proponents of repealing the beverage tax American Beverage Association (ABA), which lobbies on behalf of major corporations such as Pepsi and Coca Cola, has invested a great deal through grassroots efforts—flooding Chicago neighborhoods with anti-beverage tax collateral.
Upon learning about the county’s finance committee’s decision, The Illinois Retail Merchants Association issued the following statement in response to the vote to repeal the Cook County Sweetened Beverage Tax.
“This is great news for consumers and retailers throughout Cook County. Since its inception, this tax was poorly devised, placed an enormous operational and financial burden on retailers and saddled consumers with the responsibility to pick up the tab. We thank Commissioners Morrison and Boykin for leading the charge for repeal and all of the County Board members who have signed on to the repeal,” said Rob Karr, president & CEO, IRMA.
Despite efforts by critics to focus on the alleged inefficiencies of government management—criticizing the high-paying salaries and bonuses for senior level managers—Preckwinkle stands by her record.
“I’ve cut 10 percent of the workforce, which the city and the state hasn’t done. You know you’re working hard to be more efficient. They [ABA] doesn’t want that tax. That was the message—somehow an inefficiency of county government.” She says, “I would have supported raising the property tax and I would have supported raising the sales tax. We needed the money. We ended up with this sweetened beverage tax as we got nine votes for it.” In addition to levying the sales, property, alcohol and cigarette taxes—Preckwinkle says “90 percent of the budget that’s public health and public safety.”
With ongoing supporters of Preckwinkle—the switch to repeal the beverage tax from her biggest allies Chairman of the Finance Committee Commissioner John Daley and Commissioner Stanley Moore was viewed as a major blow to the chink in Preckwinkle’s armor. Knowing the challenging road ahead with the possibility of the Affordable Healthcare Act being repealed and Medicaid expansion threatened—she believes her work is not over.
“We have two hospitals including Provident Hospital in Cook County and we provide 45 percent of the charity care in our two hospitals. Almost half of the charity care is provided by the Cook County Health and Hospital System and all of the other hospital systems together provide more than half of our services,” she said.
Without an alternate proposal to fill in the $200 million hole, she says lay-offs are inevitable. “It will affect health care and public safety. We’ll be laying off doctors, nurses, public defenders and states attorneys.” These cuts will be significant.
At 70, the former 4th Ward alderman will run for re-election in 2018, and so far, she has no major threats for the third largest county seat in the country.
“Dr. Raju, who is one of our predecessors in the hospital system, used to say, ‘You want everybody to be healthy even if you personally don’t use the health care system.’ We want people to ride the bus or the train in the morning, you want people who serve you at lunch, you want your coworkers to be in good health because that means you have a better chance of staying in good health,” she sighs. “So, even if you don’t use the system, it’s to your advantage to have a good public health system that serves people who need health care. We’re going to be challenged to do that if we don’t have the necessary resources.”