Cook County soda tax dumped; Preckwinkle blames 'tax fatigue'
Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle predicted "painful" cutbacks and forecast a rough budget battle ahead as she suffered her biggest public defeat yet with Wednesday's repeal of the much-maligned sweetened beverage tax.
"I've been in public life for almost 30 years," Preckwinkle, a former Chicago alderman, told reporters. "I know that if you're in public life, you need to make difficult choices."
The Chicago Democrat, who is seeking a third term in 2018, blamed Wednesday's 15-2 vote by commissioners to repeal the penny-per-ounce tax on "tax fatigue" and said the effort "bore the brunt" of other recent tax increases both in the county and state. Only Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston and Jerry Butler of Chicago voted to keep the tax in place.
Preckwinkle has won both previous terms by wide margins, but her popularity has dipped in recent months due to her steadfast support of the tax, which she said had the dual purpose of increasing the health of residents and sparing the county from layoffs.
With a month to go before the end of the filing period for candidates, Preckwinkle does not yet face a primary election threat.
The repeal effort in recent months became a nationally watched battle, with former New York mayor and billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg spending $13 million to keep the tax in place and the beverage and restaurant industry spending millions to can it.
The county now faces a $200 million budget hole as it prepares for fiscal year 2018, which begins on Dec. 1, the same day the soda tax is repealed.
Preckwinkle, who presented a $5.4 billion budget last week that included revenue from the tax, said the onus is on commissioners to come up with alternative sources of funding.
Republican Commissioner Sean Morrison of Palos Park, who sponsored the repeal effort, said leaders "can certainly find $200 million elsewhere."
"There are hiring freezes we can do ... we can look at areas that are noncritical." He called it a "new horizon for Cook County."
Some, among them Democrat John Fritchey of Chicago, have suggested new revenue streams such as legalizing and charging fees on recreational marijuana, which he says could bring in roughly $25 million a year.
Preckwinkle, who has overseen balanced budgets in her seven years in office, predicted a "very tough budget season ahead."
"Now that $200 million in revenue has been taken away we will have to make cuts, some of which will be very painful. I don't know exactly what these cuts will be, but I do know we have to approve a balanced budget," she said.
Preckwinkle noted Wednesday that only 8 percent of the county's budget falls under her direct control, with other portions controlled by separately elected officials including the Cook County sheriff, assessor and recorder of deeds.
Preckwinkle said a nationwide "anti-government sentiment" makes it difficult for governments to raise the revenues they need to deliver services.
"I think people understand what their city, town and village does. It's police and fire and garbage," she said. "We need to help residents understand we're the basic social safety net."