Soda tax leaves bad taste

Soda tax leaves bad taste

The soda tax is dead, but the controversy over it is not.

Cook County's exorbitant penny-per-ounce soda tax officially expired Dec. 1, and there was no one there to mourn its passing except for a handful of sadder-but-wise county politicians who had mistakenly counted on the revenues it generated to bail them out of their budget woes.

The expiration, of course, wasn't the highlight of this both regrettable and notable chapter in Cook County political history. That came a couple months ago, after the new tax kicked in, and outraged consumers/voters let members of the county board know what they thought about this latest money grab.

The politicians quickly got the word, all except for county board President Toni Preckwinkle, who demonstrated how out of touch she is with her constituents. She said she was surprised anyone was upset about the tax hike and defended it to the bitter end.

Now Preckwinkle can expect opposition in the March Democratic Party primary. Two ambitious politicians have indicated they will run against her — former Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti and former board President Todd Stroger.

Other board members who voted for the tax before they discovered it was a bad idea also can expect a thorough going-over in the upcoming Democratic primary.

To put it simply, the Cook County Board members who thought voters would simply accept another in a series of high-handed tax increases from their devoted public servants are now wounded and vulnerable. That's why the political wolves are circling, looking to cut the weakest incumbents out of the herd.

Politics is an unforgiving business, and what happened in Cook County sends an unmistakable message to other politicians in Illinois — and far beyond — that stunts like the soda tax, also known as the sugar tax, are dangerous to embrace.

They're controversial enough even in communities that have adopted them by a popular vote. When installed by legislative fiat, particularly under the guise of a public-health initiative, they're a tough sell.

The soda tax's biggest problem is that it was not hidden. Indeed, it was an in-your-face move by the political class, one that attached a $2.88 cents tax on a 24-can case of soft drinks. (By the way, to add insult to injury, merchants also were required to impose the sales tax.)

No wonder consumers laid in supplies before the tax took effect and drove to businesses outside Cook County to buy sugary-drinks after it took effect.

Consumer action also highlighted another problem with the tax. Not only was it blatant, it also was not difficult to avoid. The gusher of tax revenues county officials expected never was going to happen because of the mass avoidance by consumers.

Still, it's easy to see why Preckwinkle & Co. thought they could get away with it.

After all, voters in Chicago and Cook County have demonstrated repeatedly over decades that they will accept almost anything — no matter how corrupt or incompetent — from their elected officials and not do anything more than occasionally grumble.

It would be comforting to think that the voter pushback represents a change in voters' tolerance for the self-interested political class. But it probably isn't.

The soda/sugar tax represented a perfect storm. The tax was outrageously indefensible. A party primary was on the horizon. Outsider politicians were available to threaten the insider politicians who passed it.

The only surprise about its repeal is that it took so long for county officials to recognize their huge mistake, weeks instead of days. Few controversies in politics are so clear.

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