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It's been 9 days. It's time to repeal Cook County's soda pop tax

It's been just over a week but Cook County's new tax on sweetened beverages is on the fast track toward becoming one of the more vilified public policies in recent memory.

Such widespread unhappiness should prompt County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and commissioners to rethink and repeal their controversial money haul.

And unless or until they do, business needs to stay in the thick of this anti-tax battle and keep making the argument for rolling it back.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association succeeded in court to temporarily stop the tax for nearly a month. Recently, a Cook County judge lifted that block, allowing the tax to go forward, and the merchants are appealing their case.

This new tax is turning into a confusing nightmare for large and small food store operators, fast-food chains and other outlets charged with collecting and keeping tabs on a new wave of incoming funds.

Although widely perceived as a toll on sugary soft drinks, it also applies to artificially sweetened beverages. So, such drinks in bottles, or from fountain machines, are taxable.

Yet since the tax is a penny-per-ounce, it raises some interesting questions. Here's one: Are we now paying for the ice that's put into the cup of a frosty fountain drink and, in effect, being slapped with a de facto frozen water tax, too?

On the other hand, custom-sweetened beverages, such as those mixed at a restaurant or stirred by a Starbucks barista, aren't subject to the tax.

Got all that?

If not, don't be embarrassed because there's ample confusion arising in the real world outside the County Board chamber.

In recent days, for example, Walgreens, McDonald's and 7-Eleven each have been sued by irate consumers for allegedly mismanaging the rollout of the tax.

The lawsuits are seeking class-action status, which is something these corporate giants must be thrilled to hear. The companies would not comment on the pending litigation.

Considering the snafus that will continue to accompany implementation of this new tax, more lawsuits are sure to follow that put an unnecessary strain on a rickety county court system.

Retailers are irate, but so are many cash-strapped consumers, who must cope with these new financial scenarios at the point of purchase during grocery shopping or ordering a meal in the drive-thru lane.

Imagine the sticker shock when someone buys a 2-liter bottle of pop that's on sale for 99 cents in Cook County but ends up paying a beverage tax of 68 cents too.

A survey by the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, an ally of the state merchants group, found that a whopping 87 percent of nearly 1,100 people surveyed are against the beverage tax.

That's a big number but not a big surprise.

Already people are reeling from rising property taxes and the state's recently-approved income tax hike.

In addition, I'm not sure this direct-to-the-consumer consumption tax is very smart public policy and I question if it will yield the estimated $200 million annually that the county expects.

(County spokesmen did not respond to my email asking questions about the new tax.)

The tax could hurt beverage sales as shoppers travel to nearby tax-free counties or switch to sipping more tax-exempt drinks.

A recent Moody's Investor Service report on the beverage industry noted the emergence of soda taxes in other parts of the country and predicted they will "encourage consumers to switch from carbonated beverages to water."

At the end of the day, we're left with a tax that's universally hated, nearly impossible to implement and probably won't bring in the revenue its backers expected.

A fiscally viable Cook County government is important because it handles many of society's most daunting problems, including public health and safety.

But President Preckwinkle needs to come up with another solution to the county's financial plight.

This sweetened beverage tax plan has already gone sour.

roreed@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @reedtribbiz

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