Soda tax is back on in Cook County

By Jean Lotus Staff Reporter

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Kubasiak on county’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the sweetened beverage tax, which was meant to begin July 1.

Start digging in the couch cushions for extra change to pay the tax on your favorite soda pop or sweetened drink in Cook County Beginning Aug. 2, the penny-per-ounce soda tax will begin as originally planned.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Kubasiak on Friday granted the County’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the sweetened beverage tax, which was meant to begin July 1. The board passed the tax in fall of 2016.

The June lawsuit, filed by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, alleged that the tax lacked “uniformity” because it didn’t apply to non-packaged beverages, like poured coffee drinks. Kubasiak issued a temporary restraining order on the county, forbidding collecting the tax revenue until the case was settled. IRMA’s lawyers argued that it could never be refunded if collected and the suit was successful.

That temporary order was lifted when Kubasiak granted the county’s motion to dismiss.

The county expected to collect about $67.5 million from the soda tax this year and more than $200 million in FY 2018.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle fired 30 county employees and threatened to lay off 1,200 more if the tax was not installed. She issued orders across all units of Cook County government to slash personnel by 10 percent.

“We believed all along that our ordinance was carefully drafted and met pertinent constitutional tests,” Preckwinkle said in a statement after the case was thrown out. “The ordinance was approved last November and all retailers and distributors should have been prepared to collect the tax on July 1.” The county website lists more than 900 retailers who will be required to collect the new tax.

Preckwinkle said $17 million was lost by the delay, which triggered drastic measures. She hinted that more cuts might be forthcoming.

“Until we are able to fully implement and collect revenues from this tax, we will continue to review our financial position and make adjustments accordingly,” she said.

“IRMA is disappointed by today’s court order,” said Rob Carr, the association’s president in an email. “We will promptly review the order, take stock of our legal options, and make a decision in the near future. Cook County retailers and consumers had a bad day vis-a-vis this latest Preckwinkle tax.”

But some thought emergency budget cuts were just a symptom of deep problems in the county’s revenue model.

“The fact that it only took a single temporary court order to place County operations on the brink of disaster should be a clear sign to everyone that we need to change the way we do business in Cook County,” said Commissioner Richard Boykin in an emailed statement. “There is now nothing to prevent President Preckwinkle from rescinding layoff notices and choosing to collaborate, rather than intimidate, when it comes to our budget process going forward. “

Boykin called on the board to hold an emergency meeting to pass spending and tax reforms, including eliminating 1,500 vacant positions and starting a tax freeze.

“The citizens of this County deserve better than a government that lurches from crisis to crisis, reaching into the taxpayer’s wallet every time an unanticipated challenge presents itself,” Boykin said.