Preckwinkle’s Pop-Tax Political Faceplant

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Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle’s big mistake was forgetting that she lives in Chicago. Last week’s revolt by county board members, responding to a revolt by county residents, will almost certainly lead to the rolling back of the penny-an-ounce Cook County soda-pop tax this week. The tax that has added anywhere from a couple of quarters to a couple of dollars to the cost of every type of sweetened beverages across the county, to the consternation of the five million people who live here.

Obviously the point of the tax was that Cook County is hemorrhaging money. But raising property and sales taxes doesn’t play well—especially when Cook County already has among the highest sales taxes in the nation—so a less obvious strategy was needed to stave off budget cuts of critical services. At least, I assume that’s what went through Preckwinkle’s head when she decided to misrepresent the soda tax to the public. All she had to do was to be honest from the start and admit that the soda-pop tax was about the county’s budget shortfall, that there wasn’t an easier way out, and that any potential health benefits were a secondary benefit. Given her uber-popular reputation, that kind of honesty is exactly what people expected from her.

Instead, her talking points were all the other way around. We have an obesity crisis in this country, and as the second-largest county containing the third-largest city in the nation, we have a responsibility to lead on that issue, like New York and Philadelphia have chosen to do. Mmm hmm. When the beverage industry balked, she said they were against public health. When the public balked, she said they were manipulated by the beverage industry.

But when the media pointed out she was doing her own manipulation by welcoming a multi-million-dollar spend for running pro-tax TV ads in the Chicago area funded by a clearly carpet-bagging ex-NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg, she couldn’t really say anything. (He pulled the same it’s-really-not-your-place stunt in Mexico, too, politicking for that nation’s national sweetened-beverage tax.) Only when key members of the county board finally balked last week—making the tax’s repeal all but assured—did Preckwinkle finally give up the pretense and admit that the soda tax had always been about plugging the county’s budget hole.

Except we all knew that from the start, so what was the point of the pretending otherwise? Not only that, but Cook County residents also responded like residents in New York and Philadelphia did to their respective regions’ attempts at a sweetened-beverage tax. We very loudly said no like the New Yorkers did—which led to the death of that city’s soda tax before it began. And once the tax started to be collected here, we did what the Philadelphians did—anyone who could simply started buying their soda outside of the county, leading to drops in sales and, of course, tax receipts. And those of lesser means without an easy way to get to the suburbs? To the extent they could afford to do so, they simply paid the tax.

So you have to ask, what is the point of a “health crisis” tax that doesn’t really stop the alleged health crisis it’s aimed at? Health was Preckwinkle’s original justification for the tax. And since Preckwinkle finally admitted the crisis the soda tax aimed at was really a budgetary one, you also should wonder why anyone would seek to fix an ongoing budget crisis with a tax based around deterrence—a tax literally designed to bring in smaller and smaller amounts of money if it actually worked? (And the data aren’t clear on whether or how well they work, either.)

Why on earth did Preckwinkle peg her reputation around such a clearly unworkable solution? Especially in an over-taxed region where only someone not from here (CoughMikeBloombergCough) wouldn’t understand the sacrosant nature Cook County residents place on their right to choose what they eat and drink? Chicago’s foie gras ban met a spectacularly celebrated death here a decade ago for a reason, and that reason is northern Illinois residents who very much do not like to be told what to do with their cherished foodways. Try to make pop an evil thing here? You might as well go to war against deep dish. Good luck.

Preckwinkle didn’t have any of that, though, and in the past few months of doubling down on the farce of a tax grab promoted as a health policy managed to single-handedly nosedive from being the most trusted politician in Northern Illinois to being a political punch line without clout nor credibility. It has been awesome and awful to watch it happen. A political self-destruct of Bilandic proportions, no TV interview in Miami in shorts during a snowstorm back home in Chicago required.

So this week the county board will bring U.S back to square one and likely vote to repeal the soda-pop tax effective in December. Due to Preckwinkle’s immense and gratuitous hubris, the county has lost months of time that commissioners could have been coming up with alternative budget strategies, and county services are in an even more precarious place than before. So while I can’t find it in me to understand why Preckwinkle blindly blundered down the road to political suicide, I can’t find it in me to be sympathetic, either. She did a stupid thing. It hurt the county.

Why sugarcoat it?

(Update 5:00PM) And it is done.

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