Why the Cook County soda tax failed

Tim Schneider and his three Republican counterparts on the Cook County Board spent much of this year trying to convince Democratic colleagues a penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax would hurt their districts, to no avail.

The suburban Republicans were the minority on the 17-member board, as well as in the 9-8 vote in favor of the tax.

"I don't think the Chicago Democratic commissioners thought they were actually going to lose money" as shoppers went elsewhere and businesses felt the pinch, Schneider, of Bartlett, said.

Then the American Beverage Association's Can the Tax Coalition stepped in, seeking to make Cook County "ground zero" against expansion of soft drink taxes around the nation, Schneider said.

On Wednesday, a 15-2 vote to repeal the tax on Dec. 1 was a historic synthesis of efforts by the beverage and restaurant industries, Republican commissioners and a few unlikely political allies.

"I give credit to the beverage industry," Schneider said. "They created this awareness program, and the commissioners who had supported the tax were inundated with mail, commercials and calls. They started feeling the heat."

"We really worked in a contemporaneous fashion," said Commissioner Sean Morrison, a Palos Park Republican who sponsored the repeal effort. Since early 2017, he said, "I began to work it from the government side of things, as they communicated and enticed commissioners (to change their votes) from the side of the consumer."

Together, they defeated former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who poured an estimated $13 million into keeping the tax, part of the billionaire businessman's crusade to reduce the obesity epidemic across the country.

They helped set up an environment where Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's bid for a third term in 2018 is expected to be her toughest yet because of her steadfast support of the tax.

David Goldenberg, spokesman for Can the Tax, said the coalition seized upon a "universal outrage" against the tax that crossed over city, suburban, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.

Central to that effort were thousands of calls from residents and business owners to Democratic Cook County Commissioner John Daley - a key ally of Preckwinkle and the son and brother of two iconic Chicago mayors.

Many of those calls, Daley said, came from employees of a Pepsi plant on Chicago's South Side who feared losing their jobs. Others came from residents and store owners who he describes as "very concerned, vastly opposed to the tax."

"I returned every single call, or attempted to, if they left a number," Daley said. "I have seen taxes come and go before, but never with the backlash that this had."

Earlier this month, Daley announced he would back a repeal, and other commissioners quickly followed suit.

Preckwinkle, for her part, described the repeal as a result of "tax fatigue" - the last straw for residents who had seen local, county and state taxes shoot up in recent years.

"Taxes are not popular, particularly in this country, and we're in an environment where people don't like taxes but want critical services, which creates a great tension if you're trying to run government at any level," she said.

Preckwinkle and all 17 commissioners are up for election in November 2018. Polls commissioned by the Illinois Manufacturers Association showed officials were far less likely to be re-elected if the beverage tax stayed in place - one reason for Schneider's Fourth of July parade appearances with a giant sign declaring, "Voted 'No' for the sweetened beverage tax."

Schneider, who chairs the state's Republican party, also got an unlikely assist from House Speaker Michael Madigan, who chairs the state's Democratic Party.

Suburban lawmakers came out in vocal opposition to the tax, with Democratic. Rep. Michelle Mussman of Schaumburg introducing legislation in August that would ban such taxes from being implemented around the state.

"The last thing Mike Madigan wanted was his suburban Democratic House members like Michelle Mussman to be attached to this beverage tax. He wanted to create distance from Republican opponents," Schneider said.

Looking forward, Schneider said he doesn't think a Republican will ultimately defeat Preckwinkle. But an anti-tax Democrat could, he said.

Republicans, he said, might not have any more clout on the county board than before, but he hopes the repeal vote ultimately produced a more cohesive work environment, where commissioners from both sides of the aisle work to produce a budget for fiscal year 2018 that now must address the $200 million hole created by the repeal of the tax.

"I don't think this gives us any more standing than before. I think it's going to create an environment ... where Republicans and Democrats can work together to make the necessary cuts to balance this budget. They have to join us in the cuts. They never had to do it before."

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John Daley
Tim Schneider
  A McDonald's in Arlington Heights warned drive-up customers of a new Cook County tax. An industry coalition, minority Republicans on the Cook County Board and a few unlikely allies won a repeal last week. Jake Griffin/
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