|TONI THE TAXER, JUST WANTS THE MONEY TO FUND MORE SWEETHEART CONTRACTS|
HERE'S OUR 2 CENTS ON PRECKWINKLE'S PENNY-AN-OUNCE POP TAX
By Crain's Editorial Board -- 8/11/17
It's not a pretty sight, watching a smart and effective government official self-immolate before our very eyes. But that's the stomach-turning prospect we see as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, an otherwise pragmatic politician, stubbornly sticks to her widely reviled penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened drinks—a tax that's turned the purchase of, say, a $5.99 24-pack of Sprite into a $9.66 affair once a raft of local levies are tacked on, including $2.88 for the Toni Tax.
We single out Preckwinkle because when the County Board split on the issue—a rarity—she cast the deciding vote. Perhaps the board's dissenters could foresee what Preckwinkle didn't: This onerous tax, designed to gin up $200 million a year, would spark widespread outrage. And it has. Most people don't give much thought to county government, but they're certainly paying attention now. Go on Twitter and search #TweetYourReceipt to see what we mean
It's also possible that Preckwinkle simply doesn't care. After nearly two weeks of withering criticism and even the rise of a potential challenger who smells opportunity in the air, Preckwinkle remains resolute, giving a WBEZ interviewer a firm "no" when asked on Aug. 10 if she would consider a repeal.
If Preckwinkle were reinforcing the barricades for a good cause—namely, paying down debt after reining in costs—we might cheer her on, as we have after she trimmed the notoriously bloated county government, rolled out needed criminal justice reforms and realized efficiencies in hospital operations. But over the years, the no-nonsense reformer has morphed into someone reminiscent of the Strogers, whose multigenerational reign over Cook County helped create the bloat, malaise and waste that she so effectively campaigned against in 2010.
Preckwinkle won that race largely on her promise to deep-six what remained of Todd Stroger's loathed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase. After re-election, however, Preckwinkle eventually restored that tax, helping make Chicago's sales taxes the highest of any U.S. city. And in 2015, Preckwinkle backed a 1 percent hotel tax, bringing in $31 million a year on top of the $474 million the new sales tax generated. Despite layoffs, however, the county's payroll kept rising, in part because union contracts approved on Preckwinkle's watch gave employees the kind of Santa Claus raises that most private-sector workers could only wish for.
Her tell-it-like-it-is demeanor, honed over her years as a schoolteacher, once lent a certain flinty charm to her battle to shape up Cook County. But there was always an imperiousness to her style, and it came to the fore last month when, after a ham-fisted layoff of roughly 300 county employees as implementation of her soda tax was delayed by an Illinois Retail Merchants Association challenge, she countersued the retailers for having the audacity to seek redress in court. She demanded $17 million in damages, an appalling move by any politician, but most especially from one who styles herself as a champion of open and accountable government.
And now there's more trouble. On Aug. 10, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it aims to withhold nearly $87 million from the state in food stamp funding unless the county immediately changes the way the pop levy is being charged.
Preckwinkle would like us to think she had no choice but to reach into the pockets of everyone living in or just passing through Cook County with the worst kind of regressive tax. But she did have a choice, and she does have a choice. She can—and she should—renegotiate those increasingly costly union contracts. And she can—and she should—undo this onerous soda tax once and for all.