CHICAGO - With a motion to repeal the sweetened beverage tax expected to come before the Cook County Board next week, Board President Toni Preckwinkle was once again defending the tax on Thursday.
Preckwinkle warned lawmakers in Springfield who are considering legislation to overturn it.
Sales of sweetened beverages have gone flat in stores across Cook County since the penny-per-ounce tax went into effect on August 2. But consumer anger is soaring. Thursday, Preckwinkle blamed the backlash on special interest groups associated with the beverage industry who she said are fueling public frustration.
"Of course, I mean as I said, big soda's spending a fortune because they know this is ground zero," said Preckwinkle.
Preckwinkle defended the tax as promoting healthier living while she visited fresh food giveaway in the South Lawndale neighborhood.
But critics said she's tone deaf if she thinks the public outrage over the tax is driven by anything other than those paying it.
"We all know what happened five minutes after this went into effect, consumers started taking pictures of their receipts, started sending them to news outlets like yours, and they started writing letters to the editor, they started calling their elected officials all on their own, they didn't need any prompting," said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.
Store owners worry the tax won't change drinking habits, just shopping habits, driving customers outside Cook County.
"People are going to drink pop no matter what, this is a very destructive beverage tax," said Lupe Jimenez, co-owner of Carnicerias Jimenez.
Preckwinkle dismissed questions about the tax hurting her reelection plans.
"You know the people of Cook County didn't elect me to worry about my next election, they elected me to do the best job that I can and that's what I'm trying to do," said Preckwinkle.
Preckwinkle had a warning for lawmakers who she noted couldn't pass a state budget for 700 days yet are now considering two bills in Springfield that would repeal the Cook County beverage tax and ban similar local laws across the state.
"So if I were them, I would stick to their business and let us stick to ours," she said.
Next Wednesday, commissioners who oppose the tax will make a motion to repeal it, and ask for a vote right then, but the issue is likely to be pushed back until October.
Preckwinkle dodged questions about whether she would veto any vote to repeal the tax Thursday.
The so-called "soda tax" applies to more than just pop. It adds a penny-per-ounce tax to any fountain or bottled drink that has sugar or artificial sweeteners added to it. Those drinks can include anything from soda to energy drinks to iced tea.
The tax does not apply to drinks made-to-order, such as a morning coffee or smoothie. It also does not include 100-percent fruit juice, vegetable juice or baby formula.