Soda tax flop

Soda tax flop

How much is too much?

It's not always obvious when our elected officials cross the line that separates public dismay from public outrage.

It seems to be clear only in the aftermath, like the passage of the infamous 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks that members of the Cook County Board approved earlier this year. It added nearly $3 to the price of a 24-can case of 12-ounce Cokes.

There wasn't much reaction when the board passed the onerous increase, with board Chairwoman Toni Preckwinkle breaking an 8-8 tie to put the legislation on the books.

Perhaps Cook County residents just weren't paying attention. Maybe that's why Preckwinkle & Co. figured that taxpayers — aka "the sheeple" — would take it and like it, just like they generally do in the traditionally one-party county.

But if that's what Preckwinkle expected — she later said she was surprised by the public's angry reaction — that's not what happened. Regular people, outraged by the tax increase and further provoked by claims that the tax increase was good for them, rebelled.

Many stopped buying soft drinks covered by the tax in Cook County and went elsewhere to make their purchases. Egged on by the soft-drink industry and merchants who run grocery and convenience stores and operating vending machines, angry taxpayers made it clear they would take their vengeance at the polls.

In the face of that onslaught, it was only a matter of time before the political establishment caved in. Formal surrender came this week when board members voted overwhelmingly (15-2) to repeal the tax on Dec. 1.

Fearful of their own voters, board members threw in the towel to save their hides. Now they can either reduce county spending by an estimated $200 million (the amount budgeted for sugar tax revenues for this budget year), find new revenue or do some combination of the two.

It's amazing Chairwoman Preckwinkle was so blind but also so tone-deaf.

She hit thousands of people right where they live with a tax they couldn't help but notice. She topped that off with lectures that sugary drinks pose health risks, including obesity, a nanny-state claim sure to irritate those targeted for taxation they already resented on financial grounds.

But, in her defense, Cook County politicians generally do as they please and the only response is a collective shrug from residents who don't expect much from their public officials and find that the political class usually meets those low expectations.

In a state in which many people tacitly accept and try to laugh off relentless political corruption — gallows humor is a coping technique — Cook County is ground zero for ineffective, inefficient and corrupt government.

But Cook County taxpayers, especially those in Chicago, are increasingly tax weary.

They just got hit with a state income tax increase. Mayor Rahm Emanual has been jacking property taxes through the roof. Then came Preckwinkle with the ill-conceived soft drink tax, the political equivalent of a fastball right down the middle.

Unlike sky-high taxes on cigarette, the sugar tax hit too many people in far too obvious a way.

The public revulsion over the sugar tax sends an unmistakable message to elected revenue-hungry officials across the state and country who watched events unfold in Cook County. It's been tried in a few isolated locales, Boulder, Colo., and Philadelphia, Pa., to name two sites, and its proponents, who insist they know best, would like it implemented virtually everywhere.

But that's not going to happen, not as long as people are willing to tell those who govern them, "This far and no farther."

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