We would have thought that taking out after citizens who exercised their rights to challenge their government would be an action beneath the standards of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, even in a losing cause. But last week, after actually winning her case to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on the sale of sweetened beverages, Preckwinkle turned on the Illinois Retail Manufacturers Association and vowed to seek $17 million from the organization that briefly held up implementation of the tax by challenging it in court.
The controversial tax was scheduled for implementation on July 1, but responding to the merchants' suit, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Kubasiak issued an order temporarily blocking it. He lifted the order last week, saying he could find no legal justification to prohibit the county from collecting the tax.
Almost immediately, Preckwinkle's lawyers asked for a court date so they could demand that the plaintiffs cough up nearly the full amount county budgeters estimate was lost during the four-week delay.
Judge Kubasiak's response, detailed in transcripts reported by Crain's Chicago Business, was succinct and wholly accurate. His word was "chilling." We would add some others -- including stunning, brutal, vindictive and outrageous.
Regardless of how one feels about the sugary-drink tax, the notion of a government going after a citizen's group for daring to use constitutionally guaranteed legal avenues to represent its constituents is almost beyond comprehension. For Judge Kubasiak, it also seemed beyond precedent.
"I could find no such case of a governmental body suing a taxpayer who had challenged a tax," he says in the transcripts Crain's quoted. "I can tell you that I am troubled by this, the chilling effect of the government saying that you best not challenge us because if you are proven wrong, we will come and get damages from you."
We are troubled, too, as should be any Cook County citizen or any person who supports the rights of individuals and agencies in a free society to challenge the actions of their government. The legal argument over the merits of the beverage tax is not over; the merchants group has vowed to appeal.
But with this latest ploy, Preckwinkle has turned the case into something more than an issue of public health, something more than a matter of how government can tax its citizens, something more than a question of whether government is managing its spending wisely. Those are all legitimate points of contention in the debate over the county's sugary-drink tax. But now the case has become a demonstration of a government's brutish reprisal against citizens acting within their responsibilities and their rights.
That is not a legitimate point of debate. President Preckwinkle should be above such an action. Indeed, so should all leaders at every level of our democracy.