Selle: Pop tax defeat in Cook County should embolden timid voters

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That loud sound you hear is the grinding and gnashing by elected officials across Illinois since Cook County residents chalked up a victory on behalf of taxpayers everywhere.

The Cook County’s controversial “sweetened” beverage tax was repealed after a taxpayer revolt the size few have ever witnessed in the Land of Lincoln. Usually, citizens just accept new taxes, suck it up and merely gripe about how expensive it is to live in Illinois.

But this time, normally timorous taxpayers stood their ground and said they weren’t going to take it anymore. The Cook County tax rebellion should be a cautionary tale for public bodies across the region.

Perhaps it was the blatant falsehood that the pop tax was enacted for health reasons. Or maybe Cook County residents have suffered long enough with what political scientists call “tax fatigue,” paying some of the highest taxes in the state.

Cook County taxes may be high, but of course the Illinois county with the highest property taxes is Lake County, according to the Illinois Policy Institute. Lake County property taxes — with a median of nearly $7,000 annually — rank 21st highest in the U.S., and tops in the Midwest.

That ranking doesn’t consider the other various taxes we pay to make it through a normal day. In comparison, Cook County residents face a median of about $4,500 annually to live in their homes.

On the other hand, they have all sorts of growing add-on taxes. Like a wheel tax on vehicles, a 10.25 percent sales tax — one of the highest in the U.S. — and other levies. For a few months, they had that “sweetened” beverage tax.

While prodded by the beverage industry — which Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle unsuccessfully tried to label “Big Soda,” like big government is the little guy — potential voters did the one thing that scares elected officials: They started writing, emailing, faxing and calling their county commissioners to express dissatisfaction with the pop tax. They started shopping in neighboring counties.

It wasn’t only pop drinkers from tony North Shore communities. Nope, consumers from across Cook County pummeled their commissioners into repealing the tax. And they didn’t care that urging officials to renege on the tax means there’s a $200 million hole in the Cook County budget.

With one anti-tax win notched, will Cook County taxpayers pour over the other sin taxes and fees they pay? One can only hope.

Just days after the pop tax revolt was sorted out, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed hiking the city’s amusement tax on large venues and increasing the city’s tax on cell phones and landlines. These guys just don’t get it.

Not that officials in Lake County are less tax happy.

Nearly every Lake County community has a litany of add-on taxes and fees residents pay little attention to because most are buried in the fine print of their monthly bills.

For instance, there’s city and village excise taxes on cell phones, internet access, cable usage. There’s amusement and entertainment taxes on theater, movie tickets and, in Gurnee, an admission tax to Six Flags Great America.

Some officials in home=rule communities have hiked sales taxes on top of the federal gasoline and regional mass transit taxes we pay at the pump. Of course, the state hasn’t been shy about those “hidden” taxes, either.

Illinois is only one of seven states in the U.S. that charges sales tax on gasoline. There’s telecomm taxes, a state 9-1-1 tax on phone bills; liquor and cigarette taxes; state taxes on electricity and natural gas usage, along with a state gas revenue tax on suppliers of natural gas, who pass that charge along to consumers.

With off-presidential elections next year, voters need to stop being timid and hold candidates’ accountable for the taxes they’ve supported in the past. They need to question their elected representatives about their future taxing plans. You know they have them.

Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor.

sellenews@gmail.com

Twitter @sellenews

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Selle: Pop tax defeat in Cook County should embolden timid voters

State Senator Asks Attorney General To Investigate Natural Gas Leak

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A state senator representing western Champaign County is asking the Illinois Attorney General to investigate Peoples Gas, after a natural gas leak contaminated at least five private water wells north of Mahomet.
Republican Chapin Rose sent a letter to Attorney General Lisa Madigan this week, asking her to open an investigation into the gas leak discovered in December of 2016.
In the letter, Rose says there needs to be an independent scientific investigation of the natural gas spill to see how widespread the damage is.
A representative from the Attorney General’s office has confirmed to WILL that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources referred this spill to Madigan and that the attorney general is looking into the incident.

State Senator Asks Attorney General To Investigate Natural Gas Leak

Morning Spin: Cook County soda tax ‘backlash’ will make other tax hikes hard, ratings agency warns

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Welcome to Clout Street: Morning Spin, our weekday feature to catch you up with what’s going on in government and politics from Chicago to Springfield. Subscribe here.

Topspin

The Cook County soda tax backlash and repeal could make it harder for the county, city and Chicago Public Schools to raise taxes or enact new ones, according to one Wall Street debt rating agency.

“The political backlash against the unpopular soda tax highlights the practical limitations on raising taxes, even if a government is legally permitted to do so,” Moody’s Investors Service analysts wrote in a report released Thursday. “This practical limitation is particularly critical for Chicago-area local governments, given the significant revenue needs of Cook County, the city of Chicago, CPS and other entities.”

Moody’s observation came a day after Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a 2018 city budget that includes a $1.10-per-month increase in the current $3.90 emergency communications fee that’s charged on every land line and cellphone billed to a city address. The mayor’s proposal also includes a phased-in 20-cent increase to the current 52-cent tax on all trips using ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.

Some aldermen who will be called on to vote on those taxes have said the soda tax repeal was on their minds as they weighed the mayor’s proposal.

“This whole idea of revenue-generating ideas has to stop,” 12th Ward Ald. George Cardenas said after Emanuel gave his budget speech. “We have to sit down at a table and talk about cost-cutting ideas.”

The Moody’s analysis noted that after the repeal, the county is looking for ways to plug a resulting $200 million hole in County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s 2018 budget proposal, concluding that budget cuts likely would be the answer.

The analysis also noted that there were “unique issues” surrounding the penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened beverages that’s now coming to an end Dec. 1. Those included the much-debated public health benefits of the tax, the hefty cost increases for the drinks and the troubled rollout of the tax.

“While these challenges would not apply to other types of tax increases, any future tax hikes in the wake of the soda tax repeal will likely be met with some political opposition, exacerbating budget pressures for Cook County and other area local governments,” the analysts wrote. (Hal Dardick)

 

What’s on tap

*Mayor Emanuel has no public events.

*Gov. Bruce Rauner will attend a Hispanic state employees conference in Chicago, a community college manufacturing day event in Chicago, an event at the DuPage Children’s Museum, and the opening of the new Apple store at Michigan Avenue along the Chicago River.

 

From the notebook

*‘Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world’: Email solicitations for political support are frequent, but it’s rare that a candidate invites someone out to go to the movies. Still, that’s the latest missive from Democratic governor candidate Chris Kennedy.

“Join us for a night at the movies,” the subject line reads in asking people to join Kennedy and wife Sheila for the Chicago premiere of Kennedy sister Rory’s new film, “Take Every Wave,” at 7 p.m. Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.

Rory Kennedy is a filmmaker, and her latest work tracks the life and career of big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton. After the screening, the brother and sister Kennedys will hold a question-and-answer session with the audience. Popcorn is extra. (Rick Pearson)

*On the Sunday Spin: Tribune reporter Rick Pearson will recap the Aurora University forum of Democratic governor candidates. In addition, he will speak with state Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, Melissa Josephs of Women Employed and Wendy Pollack of the Shriver Poverty Law Center on attempts to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of pay-equity legislation. The “Sunday Spin” airs from 7 to 9 a.m. on WGN-720 AM.

 

What we’re writing

*Senate committee advances Lausch to be next U.S. attorney in Chicago.

*Kennedy assails party leaders with government, elections proposals.

*Illinois Supreme Court rules teen cannot be tried by jury in Endia Martin’s killing.

*U. of I., Army Research Lab will join U. of C. in new Polsky Center tower.

*Illinois unemployment rate stayed at 5 percent in September.

 

What we’re reading

*Weather Service forecasts mild winter, jinxing it, probably.

*He was the king of late night, but David Letterman doesn’t miss it “for a second.”

*“Hiya, Homer!”: Moe’s Tavern-themed pop-up bar comes to Lincoln Park for Halloween.

 

Follow the money 

*Track Illinois campaign contributions in real time here and here

 

Beyond Chicago

*Trump chief of staff defends call to Army widow.

*Ask Seattle what 50,000 more Amazon workers would mean.

*Trump interviews U.S. attorney candidates for New York.

*CIA director: North Korea months from perfecting nuclear capabilities.

Morning Spin: Cook County soda tax ‘backlash’ will make other tax hikes hard, ratings agency warns

Amid program uncertainty, Evanston medical marijuana dispensary granted shorter lease term

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The licensed medical marijuana dispensary in downtown Evanston asked to to renew its rental agreement with the city for one year instead of three to accommodate uncertainty in the state’s medical cannabis program

PharmaCann opened a location in 2015 on the ground floor of the city-owned Maple self-park garage at 1804 Maple Ave. The dispensary was permitted under the state’s four-year pilot program, which ends on Dec. 31, 2017. The Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act allows for legal cultivation and distribution of medicinal-grade cannabis – more commonly known as marijuana – for use by certain people with approved medical conditions, according to terms of the state law.

PharmaCann’s lease also expires on Dec. 31, according to city information on the lease. Dispensary officials asked to renew the lease for one year instead of the three years in the initial rental agreement. That would mean the tenancy would run to December 31, 2018 instead of the same date in 2020, all to allow for PharmaCann to evaluate the state of the program after the pilot project ends and react accordingly, officials said.

Evanston aldermen unanimously approved the request at their Sept. 25 meeting.

PharmaCann, based in Oak Park, opened Evanston’s first medical marijuana dispensary after the state program was approved. To buy marijuana at the dispensary patients must first register with the state, according to Evanston Review reports.

That process includes submitting fingerprints and a form signed by a physician certifying the patient has one of the dozens of qualifying conditions listed in the Illinois Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act.

PharmaCann rents the space from the City of Evanston for $84,000 per year, according to terms of the lease.

gbookwalter@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @GenevieveBook

Amid program uncertainty, Evanston medical marijuana dispensary granted shorter lease term

EDITORIAL:

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Last year, Illinois enacted a foresighted law designed to provide cleaner air, more jobs and lower energy bills for the state’s residents. Now, a company that owns coal-fired Illinois power plants is pushing to weaken clear-air rules in a way that would undermine those goals. The Illinois Pollution Control Board should take a deep breath and refuse to go along.

EDITORIAL

A vote for this idea would be a big step backward. The state’s air, including in Chicago, would get dirtier and the transition away from a coal would be detoured.

Last year, stakeholders ranging from environmentalists to utilities laboriously finished hammering out an agreement that led to the Illinois Future Jobs Act, a law designed to improve residents’ health and help make Illinois a leader in renewable energy — all while reining in utility bills.

Since then, however, two utilities have engaged in what amounts to a counterattack.

First, the Downstate utility Ameren, which supplies gas and electricity to central and southern Illinois, persuaded the Illinois Commerce Commission to let it lower its energy efficiency goals.

Now, Dynegy Energy, which owns eight coal plants in central and southern Illinois, wants the Illinois Pollution Control Board to scrap the limits on the rate of pollution each of its plants can emit. Dynegy, which is also reported to be seeking rate increases in the Legislature, proposes instead that existing annual caps apply to its plants as a group, which would allow it give its dirtier plants more leeway to belch out soot and other pollutants that cause smog and acid rain. The proposal comes as Dynegy faces a deadline it agreed to in 2006 to reduce air pollution.

In classic example of the problems with revolving-door government, Dynegy has worked with Gov. Bruce Rauner’s director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency — a former lobbyist for a trade association that represents Dynegy — to draw up the plan. According to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, the revised pollution caps would provide a financial incentive to Dynegy to actually increase pollution if they chose.

Among other issues at a hearing Thursday, Dynegy will ask the Illinois Pollution Control Board to rush through the decision-making process. But there is no need to hurry this through without full input and careful consideration. Illinois does not face any shortage of power generation capacity.

The environment is under regulatory assault from the Trump administration, which is intent on chopping away protections. As a result, states must become even more vigilant about protecting their air and water. Plans such as Dynegy’s should be rejected.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

EDITORIAL:

In debate, Democrats Pritzker, Kennedy, Biss back legalizing marijuana in Illinois

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The Democratic candidates hoping to take on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner next year gathered on a debate stage Wednesday for the second time in 12 hours, when most of them agreed they would support legalizing marijuana in Illinois.

State Sen. Daniel Biss and entrepreneur and philanthropist J.B. Pritzker cast the issue as a matter of keeping people out of the criminal justice system, saying minorities are often subjected to harsher punishment for pot-related crimes.

“There are reasons to legalize marijuana and I favor legalization, but the reasons are less to do with revenue than they are with safety and criminal justice reform,” Pritzker said.

When minorities get busted for possessing marijuana, Biss said, “they get the book thrown at them.”

“It’s not just that they wind up with harsh consequences for a few weeks or months, there is a record that follows them for the rest of their life,” the Evanston lawmaker said.

Businessman Chris Kennedy said he was “for full decriminalization,” but he also called for a study of the drug’s effects. He said research institutions like the University of Illinois should offer recommendations regarding its safety.

Madison County regional schools Superintendent Bob Daiber said he would be willing to approve a law legalizing the drug “but I want a referendum that says the people passed it.” Daiber joked that he was worried about lobbyists going to Springfield with pot-laced gummy bears to convince lawmakers to approve a legalization measure. Businessman Alex Paterakis argued that the drug had already been studied plenty and that “if it was so bad for people we wouldn’t even have medical marijuana.” Paterakis suggested that as an agriculture state, Illinois could benefit from joining the pot market.

“This would be a great opportunity for our farmers to produce a new product, new cash crop.”

Just one candidate was opposed to the idea. Activist Tio Hardiman, who is on his second attempt at the Democratic nomination for governor, said he was supportive of reducing criminal penalties for people who are caught with small amounts of the drug. But he said he wasn’t sure he would “fully support” legalization because he wouldn’t want to be seen as endorsing use of the drug.

“Think about the children,” Hardiman said. “You do not want your kids driving their cars high on marijuana, impaired.”

Appearing at a forum in Mount Prospect, each candidate said he would support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and shifting away from the current flat income tax system in favor of one that charges different rates for people at different income levels.

The candidates all agreed that the state isn’t doing an adequate job of funding schools and that property taxes are too high. They also were united in their rejection of Rauner’s proposals for addressing those problems.

kgeiger@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kimgeiger

In debate, Democrats Pritzker, Kennedy, Biss back legalizing marijuana in Illinois

Why the Cook County soda tax failed

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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.”

Why the Cook County soda tax failed