Democrats worry about political fallout from county soda pop tax

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Concern about the political effects of a deeply unpopular county pop tax — on top of recent state and city tax increases — on Thursday hung over the first day of Cook County ‘ endorsement session for next year’s primary election.

Cook County Board President took the podium to make the first pitch of the day, asking the party she vice-chairs for an endorsement for re-election next year. The beverage tax that she broke a tie vote to approve in November has been collected for just more than a week, but state Rep. asked her whether she would repeal it.

“My answer is no,” Preckwinkle responded. “We had a choice last fall, either raise revenue, or make 1,100 cuts in personnel and lay off 1,100 people, and I thought then, I think now, that would severely impact the quality of services.”

“Eighty-seven percent of our budget is public health and public safety, and that is the principal area in which our staff is located,” she added. “So, no, I’m not going to do that.”

Preckwinkle afterward avoided addressing potential political fallout of the tax and instead defended its passage. Other Democrats expressed worries, though, that the controversial drink tax could combine with a state income tax hike and increases in city property taxes to sow the seeds for a potential voter tax revolt against Democrats in November 2018.

Northwest Side Ald. Nicholas Sposato, 38th, said he expects some backlash against the pop tax “down the road in the election next year.” People complaining to him about the tax “are blaming Preckwinkle and the Democrats,” he said, adding that the income tax increase would compound the problem.

Democrats last month overrode Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a state income tax rate hike from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent, a move made to end a two-year state budget stalemate and try to balance the state’s books.

“It certainly will affect the party,” Sposato said. “There will be some backlash for it.”

With more than a year before next year’s election, voters also might move on to other concerns. Candidates could learn more in the coming weeks, when they set out to collect petition signatures they need to run for office next year.

“While this (beverage tax criticism) has been fast moving, the rubber will hit the road — and we will have the best understanding with what’s happening with the voters — when candidates go out and solicit (nominating) petitions,” said one Democratic candidate who asked not to be identified to avoid conflict with Preckwinkle and other party leaders.

Even elected officials who don’t serve on the County Board and had no role in enacting the penny-per-ounce beverage levy are getting heat.

“People at the grocery store are asking me why I voted for it,” said one Democratic elected official who doesn’t serve at the county level and asked not to be identified to avoid conflict with party leaders. “There is a combination effect. You’ve got this tax, the city putting on taxes, the state income tax. There may be a backlash.”

The Democratic elected official said the November 2018 election remains far away and questioned whether the raw public criticism seen in the opening days of the beverage tax’s collection would remain. Still, the official said, lawsuits filed against Walgreens, McDonald’s and 7-Eleven over issues implementing the tax “keeps the issue in the public eye.”

The same goes for radio ads and a continuing legal challenge of the new tax funded by the beverage industry and news Thursday that the county could lose $87 million in federal food stamp money if a problem in collecting the tax isn’t fixed.

In apparent acknowledgment of political concerns over the beverage tax, Preckwinkle spent some of her pitch before party slatemakers Thursday defending it and saying more needs to be done to inform the public about the workings of county government.

“We’re in a moment of time now where we’re particularly challenged around the sweetened beverage tax,” Preckwinkle told top Democratic leaders.

“We’ve got some challenges getting our message out about the sweetened beverage tax and we’re going to begin to do that as the campaign heats (up) at the end of August and Labor Day,” she said.

Ironically, the issue of a repeal of the tax was raised to Preckwinkle by Arroyo, an 11-year state lawmaker whose namesake son is a member of the County Board. Luis Arroyo Jr. was on the fence about supporting the beverage tax until the day of the vote in November, when he backed it.

Asked after the meeting whether anyone should read anything into his father’s question about repealing the tax, Luis Arroyo Jr. said: “We’ll see what happens.”

Democratic Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin voted against the tax and has been using public criticism of the issue to explore a potential challenge to Preckwinkle. He did not appear before slatemakers.

Also surfacing again among top Democrats on Thursday was the fairness of property assessments, which are used to figure property taxes. Making the issue particularly politically sensitive is the fact that County Assessor also is the county’s Democratic chairman overseeing the week’s slatemaking.

Berrios could face a challenge from first-time candidate Fritz Kaegi. He has been trying to capitalize on the Tribune’s “Tax Divide” series, which concluded the property tax assessment system Berrios runs favors the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

During his presentation, Berrios defended his work as assessor, saying, “Everyone has a right to file an appeal of their property assessment if they feel it is too high. … I think we’re doing a great job.”

Some committeemen pressed him on the issue, though, asking whether he was willing to stop accepting campaign contributions from attorneys who file assessment appeals. Berrios said that could create a system under which a well-heeled candidate would have an advantage over those without personal wealth.

“If you make a system that is fair to everyone, I will abide by it,” he said.

Berrios also was asked about the way he assesses properties. “If there’s a better model than what we have right now, I will use it immediately,” he said.

Even if some committeemen are in Kaegi’s corner, Berrios enjoys strong party support, as evidenced in a preliminary vote Thursday of most committeemen to endorse him. Votes recommending endorsement also went in favor of incumbent Treasurer over challenger Peter Gariepy and Sheriff Tom Dart over former Chicago cop and state lawmaker . The final votes will be held Friday.

GOP leaders may try to capitalize, but they face challenges, too. One prominent Republican said he believed Rauner will try to “foment a tax revolt” as part of his messaging for re-election statewide. The governor has made his opposition to state Democrats’ tax hike plan a key part of his messaging.

“But the problem is, there’s no Republicans in Cook County anymore,” said the GOP insider who was not authorized to speak publicly about party business and strategy. “For something to happen, it’s got to be the middle class to rise up and say, ‘Enough.'”

The Republican said he doesn’t believe the seeds of a tax revolt will germinate with voters in 2018 but could in 2019 when Chicago holds its mayoral and aldermanic elections or in 2020 when state lawmakers are again on the ballot.

“Candidly, I don’t think it is ripe right now,” he said, “but it’s going to happen.”

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