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Cook County Finance Committee Votes 15-1 To Can The Soda Tax

CHICAGO (CBS) -- In a near-unanimous vote, the Cook County Finance Committee has approved a plan to repeal the controversial sweetened beverage tax, effective Dec. 1, setting up a final showdown on Wednesday.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin was the only member of the Cook County Board to vote against the proposal to eliminate the penny-per-ounce tax on soft drinks and other sugary beverages, after three more commissioners who originally voted for it defected on Tuesday.

A final vote on repealing the tax would come at Wednesday's meeting of the full board, but unless any board members change their mind again by then, the tax is all but certain to go away.

The commissioners who voted to repeal the tax included: Luis Arroyo Jr. (D-Chicago); Richard Boykin (D-Oak Park); John Daley (D-Chicago); Dennis Deer (D-Chicago); John Fritchey (D-Chicago); Bridget Gainer (D-Chicago); Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-Chicago); Gregg Goslin (R-Glenview); Stanley Moore (D-Chicago); Edward Moody (D-Chicago Ridge); Sean Morrison (R-Palos Park); Tim Schneider (R-Bartlett); Peter Silvestri (R-Elmwood Park); Deborah Sims (D-Chicago); and Jeffrey Tobolski (D-McCook). Commissioner Jerry Butler (D-Chicago) was absent.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has said the tax is needed to balance the county budget and avoid cuts to essential services, was not at the Finance Committee meeting. Afterward her office said she was "disappointed" by the vote, but would work with the board to balance the budget without the revenue from the tax.

"As I outlined last week, it is up to the commissioners to choose our direction on revenue, and I respect their authority to do so. Now, together, we must chart a new course toward the eighth consecutive balanced budget of my tenure as board president," Preckwinkle said in a prepared statement. "As I noted last month, the difficult fight for this revenue has focused me on what matters most: doing the hard work necessary to build a healthier, safer and more efficient Cook County. That work continues."

The original 2016 vote on the sweetened beverage tax was a tie, which Preckwinkle broke to approve it. Three commissioners who originally voted for the tax -- Daley, Garcia, and Moore -- switched sides last week. Deer, who wasn't on the board for the original vote, also came out against the tax last week, giving opponents enough votes to repeal the tax and survive a possible veto. At Tuesday's Finance Committee meeting, three more commissioners who approved the tax last year defected -- Arroyo, Moody, and Sims.

During public testimony on Tuesday, Celeste Garcia, who runs a community group, expressed outrage the commissioners were moving to repeal a tax estimated to bring in $200 million a year for health programs, and things like legal help for residents.

"Why are you trying to repeal the sugar tax today, but you don't have any plan on how you're going to fill this debt? Maybe you should come up with how you're going to fill the debt before you repeal the tax," she said.

Commissioner Richard Boykin, one of the most outspoken critics of the tax, said the board would not let health care for the poor suffer because of revenue lost from eliminating the tax.

"We want everybody to have the health care that they deserve. Nobody wants citizens to get lesser health care at the county," he said.

Preckwinkle has warned the county could face 11 percent across-the-board cuts without the tax in place.

During Tuesday's hearing, officials from various county department warned of potential cuts that would come if the tax is repealed.

County Undersheriff Zelda Whittler spoke about the cuts that would be required by the Cook County Sheriff's Department.

"If we are required to reduce our budget by the additional 11 percent, it will be devastating. We're talking about an elimination of 302 … correctional officer positions, 124 police positions," she said.

Commissioner Bridget Gainer sought to assure county officials and the public those effects would be dealt with as part of the annual budget process.

"This isn't the end of the discussion today. This is just the beginning, and this is exactly what the process was built for; which is taxes need to be considered in a budget, any reductions need to be considered in the budget," she said.

Boykin has suggested the board could make up for the lost revenue through a hiring freeze, eliminating vacant positions, and holding the line on pay raises.

Preckwinkle presented a budget plan last week that relies on the soda tax revenue. Budget hearings were scheduled to begin in about two weeks.

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