Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Thursday blasted the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, accusing the group of seeking “maximum negative impact” by waiting to file a lawsuit to block the county’s sweetened beverage tax until just days before it was scheduled to go into effect, a move that will cause “hundreds” of county workers to lose their jobs.
“That’s disingenuous on their part, to put it kindly,” Preckwinkle said of the association on WBEZ’s Morning Shift. “We enacted this tax last November. At any point after that, they could have talked to us about compromise. … They chose the very last moment to have maximum negative impact. If they had done it immediately, we might have had this judicated in the courts by now and know where we were.”
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association did not immediately comment.
A Cook County judge last month put a temporary halt on the penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages after the association argued the tax is unconstitutional and vague.
As a result, Preckwinkle said each county department and office will have to cut 10 percent of its budget. County officials had hoped to balance the county’s $4.4 billion budget for the 2017 fiscal year with the tax, which was estimated to bring in more than $67 million this year and $200 million next year.
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, a close ally of Preckwinkle who also appeared on Morning Shift Thursday, said any layoffs within her office would be “painful.” A spokeswoman for the Cook County Sheriff’s office said nearly 1,000 employees could receive pink slips.
Preckwinkle said 1,100 workers were laid off in November due to budget cuts. She said she doesn’t know how many additional layoffs will be made now.
Appearing on Morning Shift, Preckwinkle talked about the difficulties of finding another revenue stream and what she expects to be a “protracted court battle” over the sweetened beverage tax. Below are some interview highlights.
On the possibility of raising other taxes
Toni Preckwinkle: I don’t think that there’s any source of revenue that I could get nine votes for. You have to understand, we did this last year because it was two years out of an election. I can’t ask my commissioners — because I know I won’t get the votes — to propose another tax increase right before they have to run in the primaries or right before they have to run in the general election. That’s just really unlikely.
On finding compromises with the Illinois Retail Merchants Association
Preckwinkle: We enacted this tax last November. At any point after that, they could have talked to us about compromise. What they talked to us about is modifying the rules and [regulations], which we issued in March and we have tweaked since then in every case they at their request.
And then, two days before the tax was to be implemented, they went to court and sued us. They could have brought suit anytime between November, when we enacted the budget, and the end of June, when we were about to implement the tax.
They chose the very last moment to have maximum negative impact. If they had done it immediately, we might have had this judicated in the courts by now and know where we were. As it is, we’re in for a protracted court battle.
On budget cuts
Preckwinkle: We’ve asked bureau chief, every department head, every separately elected official to cut their budgets by 10 percent between now and Nov. 30. They can do that with non-personnel costs — contracts, vendors, whatever. They can do that through personnel, but since most of our budgets, across the board, are personnel, it’s going to result in some layoffs. I’m not sure the exact magnitude. We’re eliminating a lot of positions, sweeping them as one way of saving money so people can’t fill positions. But we’re also going to end up laying off hundreds of people.
Preckwinkle: One of the worst things about this job is that I’ve had, over the course of the seven years that I’ve been in office, [is] to lay people off. It’s heartbreaking because the folks who are going to be laid off, it’s no fault of their own. It’s not a reflection of their performance or the importance of the work that they do. It’s because we just don’t have the resources to pay all of our costs.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire segment.