Illinois politicians reintroduce penny-per-ounce ‘sugary drink’ tax

Illinois politicians reintroduce penny-per-ounce ‘sugary drink’ tax

State lawmakers propose regressive tax on sugary drinks to help fill budget holes created by decades of irresponsible policies.

Some lawmakers in Springfield think they may have found a sweet solution to Illinois’ budget gridlock: taxing sugary beverages.

Instead of drafting proposals to reform the state’s broken workers’ compensation system or freeze its record-high property taxes, a group of lawmakers is suggesting taxing sugary beverages at a penny-per-ounce price as part of a new budget proposal. Revenue estimates for the tax range between $375 million and $600 million per year.

If this sounds like a familiar plan, it’s because it’s a recycled – and failed – plan from 2014.

Lawmakers in 2014 used the narrative of promoting public health to defend their revenue grab.

“Numerous studies have linked excessive consumption of sugary soft drinks to obesity,” state Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, said, according to a report by Lee Enterprises newspapers in 2014. “We as a state need to do a better job of educating the public and children in particular about this issue and the health risks.”

Springfield politicians have not learned much since then, proposing the same bad ideas with the same flawed logic.

Not only would this money grab fail to cure the state’s budgetary ills, it would not address public health concerns and would instead hurt struggling Illinoisans.

A 2013 Gallup poll found that 45 percent of people with incomes less than $30,000 drink regular (i.e., sugar-sweetened) soda, while one-third of those with incomes from $30,000-$74,999 drink regular soda, and just one-fifth of those with incomes higher than $75,000 drink it. The same poll showed that nearly twice as many nonwhite people drink regular soda as white people.

The tax is inherently regressive, much like other sin taxes politicians have gravitated toward to raise more revenue. The city of Chicago has seen firsthand the unintended consequences of sin taxes, as the Chicago City Council’s continued insistence on increasing tobacco taxes has led to a dangerous black market in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

But that hasn’t changed thinking in Chicago either, as the city passed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to increase its highest-in-the-nation tobacco taxes again March 16. And just last year, Chicago, like Springfield, took a page from the playbook of New York City’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose soda regulations were ultimately overturned by the courts, when Alderman George Cardenas, 12th Ward, proposed what would have been Chicago’s third city-level tax on the sale of soft drinks, under the guise of promoting public health.

This idea of taxing citizens to promote better health is nothing more than a pretense to shovel money into the financial holes created by decades of bad public policy decisions. Politicians cannot tax Illinois’ way to better health habits and better budgets. But there is plenty Springfield can do right now to address the latter.

Lawmakers right now could pass legislation reforming Illinois’ uncompetitive workers’ compensation system. They could also work to pass a property-tax freeze in the Senate, and expand property-tax relief for Illinoisans across the state.

Structural reforms could ensure the state does not end up in fiscal crisis again down the road. Taxing sugary beverages won’t fix decades of financial recklessness, and this regressive proposal shows how averse many in Springfield are to changing the way the state operates.

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