County commissioners pitch sugary drink tax repeal

USDA threatens to withhold food stamp funds

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Bob Skolnik

Contributing Reporter

Five Cook County Commissioners announced on Aug. 9 that they will support an ordinance to repeal the controversial Cook County penny-an-ounce tax on pre-sweetened beverages.

Commissioners Richard Boykin (D-1st), Sean Morrison (R-17th) and Tim Schneider (R-15th) appeared at a press conference Aug. 9 at the County Building to announce their move to repeal the tax.

A press release from Morrison stated that Commissioners Jeffrey Tobolski (D-16th) and John Fritchey (D-12th) also support the repeal.

Morrison, the chief sponsor, said that his ordinance to repeal the beverage tax will be considered at the next county board meeting on Sept. 13 and encouraged people to attend.

"The beverage tax is an absolute disaster for Cook County," said Morrison whose district includes the central part of Brookfield and all of Riverside. "Residents and businesses are getting punished by it. After witnessing the tremendous fallout and public backlash, I believe there are some on the board who voted to support the tax that could reconsider their original vote and support this repeal."

Boykin, who represents Forest Park and Oak Park, said he opposes the tax because it is regressive, hard to administer and unpopular.

"I'm against it because the people are against it," Boykin said. "I mean my constituents were against it from the beginning. … I think it's unwarranted and the whole guise about reducing obesity, all of us want to do that, but if we want to do that we've got to put the money there."

Tobolski, who represents North Riverside and parts of the north and south ends of Brookfield, also said that the tax was unfair.

"I know it's been said over and over and over again, but it's a tax that targets a very small segment of the population and attempts to balance a deficit on their shoulders," Tobolski said.

The tax was approved in November when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle broke a tie vote. Since then there is one new commissioner, Dennis Deer (2nd), who replaced Robert Steele, who died in June. Steele was in the hospital when the county board deadlocked 8-8 on the tax before Preckwinkle broke the tie.

Even if the repeal passed the county board, it would take 11 votes to override an expected veto by Preckwinkle. In a follow up interview, Boykin admitted that that getting 11 votes for repeal is unlikely.

"I think that the only chance you're going to have for a repeal, quite honestly, is if you have a new president of the county board," said Boykin, who said that he is considering running against Preckwinkle in the 2018 Democratic primary.

Another problem with beverage tax emerged Aug. 10, when state officials informed Preckwinkle that the way some retailers have been implementing the tax could result in the federal government withholding $87 million in food stamp money.

Purchases made with federal food assistance, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are exempt from tax. The sweetened beverage tax is added on to the price of the drink purchased and some retailers, especially small retailers, have not updated their point of sale systems to not charge the tax to those making purchases with SNAP benefits.

To get around this problem, the county issued a regulation stating that retailers could ring up the tax and refund the amount of the tax in cash to SNAP purchasers. But the federal government has indicated that charging the tax at all to SNAP purchasers is not permissible.

A spokesman for Preckwinkle said on Aug. 10 that the county had worked with the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the SNAP program, in setting up the refund procedure and will continue to work with them to iron out any issues.

"It was never our intention in drafting the sweetened beverage regulations to put federal SNAP funding for the state in jeopardy," said Frank Shuftan, the chief spokesman for Preckwinkle in a statement. "At this time, we believe we are in compliance with existing SNAP rules. We do however recognize that USDA's powers against the state in this regard are substantial, and we will work collaboratively with both the state and USDA to address USDA's concerns."

The commissioners say that revenue lost by repealing the beverage tax could be made up for by streamlining county government.

"There are alternative means to address those fiscal issues and we plan to present those remedies to President Preckwinkle as she prepares her 2108 budget proposal," Morrison said.

Boykin said that county should improve its procurement process, curtail hiring and save money on legal expenses.

He said that that he would also introduce an ordinance at the September 13 county board meeting to require the Cook County State's Attorney, which represents the county in legal actions, to inform county commissioners of any before filing certain court actions.

This is in response to Preckwinkle's now-withdrawn motion to seek $17 million in damages from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which filed a lawsuit challenging the beverage tax and delayed its implementation by a month. The constitutionality of the tax was eventually upheld and the tax went into effect on Aug. 2.

"I think when you act like that, it becomes almost as if you're the monarch," Boykin said of Preckwinkle's legal action against the Retail Merchants Association. "If you're going to use taxpayer money to bind the county to a lawsuit then the commissioners ought to get a say in that.

"My problem is that we weren't even consulted. We found out about it in the newspapers."

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