On Thursday and Friday, you can get four 12-packs of cans for $8.88. After that, well, it depends. A judge will hear arguments Thursday about whether to allow the county’s penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened beverages to kick in July 1 as planned. If it does, the four-for-$8.88 special will cost you $14.64.
Unless you’re one of more than 872,000 Cook County residents who pay with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, that is. Under federal law, SNAP purchases are exempt from state and local taxes.
That’s perplexing, because the soda tax is meant to decrease consumption of sweetened drinks, thereby reducing obesity, diabetes and other health problems, according to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. But Americans with lower incomes tend to drink more soda, according to several studies, so they’re more at risk. Oops.
This so-called health initiative is riddled with contradictions. The new tax will apply to all sweetened beverages, including soda, iced tea, lemonade and sports drinks — in bottles, cans or from a fountain (in which case you’re taxed on the ice in your cup, too). But the tax also will apply to artificially sweetened drinks, many of which have zero calories. And while a bottled, presweetened iced coffee sold at your grocer will be taxed, the same drink prepared to order by your local barista won’t.
So once again, let’s call this what it really is: a disingenuous money grab. County officials hope the beverage tax will raise $224 million a year to help close a gaping budget hole. They don’t have the discipline to rein in their spending, and they don’t have the spine to impose an honest, across-the-board tax to pay for services the county provides to all residents.
The bad news for Cook County Board members is that they’ll be busted every time you make a purchase. The county had hoped to require grocers to include the tax in the selling price of the drinks, but the Illinois Department of Revenue said nope, it must be added at the cash register. The tax will appear as a separate line item on your receipt. We expect it will be a real eye-opener.
There could be a last-minute reprieve, though. The Illinois Retail Merchants Association and a handful of businesses have sued to prevent the tax from being collected. They say the tax violates the uniformity clause of the state constitution because of the vagaries and contradictions noted above. And the shifting interpretations of how to apply the tax, especially on SNAP purchases, create logistical and bookkeeping headaches that must be sorted out somehow at the cash register. Merchants say they need more time to figure out how to do that legally.
The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce had previously called for the county to delay collecting the tax until Jan. 1, calling the rollout “a mess.” But the county is hell-bent on promoting healthy choices, so too bad. We hope the judge will put the brakes on this tax — or better yet, stop it in its tracks.
If Cook County Board members were truly worried about obesity, diabetes and other consequences of poor dietary choices, they’d tax all sorts of sugary products, not just drinks. They wouldn’t tax diet soda. Or ice. And then they’d move on to taxing salt, trans fats, refined carbohydrates, Doritos …
Why don’t we just have a monthly taxpayer weigh-in and be done with it? Step on the scale and pay by the pound.