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McCaleb: Got a health or safety problem? There's a tax for that

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Dan McCaleb

Big government aficionados have become experts at exploiting public health and safety concerns to justify taking more of your money.

Sugary drink taxes. Red light cameras. Plastic bag taxes. Liquor taxes. Tobacco taxes. 

All are bureaucratic money grabs in the name of the public’s general well-being.

Take Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s tax on soft drinks, juices and other beverages that have added sugar or artificial sweeteners.

The penny-per-ounce grab adds $1.44 to the cost of a 12-pack of canned soda, or 68 cents to a 2-liter bottle. It also is imposed on fountain drinks, making that gigantic 99-cent pop not such a great bargain anymore. 

When Preckwinkle got behind the tax, she said it was all about its health benefits. Sugary drinks contribute to the nation’s very real problem with obesity and diseases such as diabetes, Preckwinkle argued, so the new tax will deter people from purchasing and, therefore, consuming them.

Pixy stix!

This tax isn’t about public health. Consumers who want their sodas will get them, whether it means sucking it up and paying the excessive fee or driving across county lines and purchasing it elsewhere.

This is a money grab by a bloated bureaucracy, pure and simple. And it’s almost universally maligned. 

Preckwinkle showed her hand when she tried to capture millions of dollars from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the sugary drink tax from going into effect. The association won an initial court battle when a Cook County judge issued a temporary restraining order, preventing the county from enacting the tax on its scheduled July 1 start date. Late last month, however, the judge lifted the TRO and dismissed the lawsuit, saying the county had the right to institute the tax beginning in early August.

But Preckwinkle, oh so concerned about the health of her constituents, immediately went after the lost July revenue by seeking $17 million in damages from IRMA.

She quickly backed off the shameless pursuit after being roundly criticized by, well, pretty much everyone.

The sugary drink taxes are a subversion, and as shameless as the red-light enforcement cameras that have been in use in Illinois communities for about a decade now. Billed as a way to make select intersections safer from car crashes, they’ve done nothing but fill the coffers of municipal governments in Chicago and across the suburbs.

A Sun-Times/ABC 7 investigation in May found that 86 suburban communities collected $67 million last year alone in ticket revenue generated by red light cameras. That revenue increased by almost 50 percent from 2014 as more and more communities installed the cameras, according to the study.

As for the public safety benefits? They don’t make us better drivers, just poorer drivers. 

A 2014 study commissioned by the Chicago Tribune found little safety benefits from the use of red light cameras. In fact, the Tribune’s study found that, while right-angle crash injuries at intersections were reduced by about 15 percent, there also was a 22 percent increase in rear-end crash injuries due to motorists stopping suddenly to avoid a ticket.

But it’s all about public safety, right?

Several efforts over many years to ban or restrict the use of red-light cameras in Illinois have, to date, failed in the state legislature.

That has me somewhat skeptical about new state efforts to eliminate Preckwinkle’s drink tax.

Two separate measures filed last week seek to ban sweetened beverage taxes across Illinois, including the existing one in Cook County.

What makes this latest effort more encouraging is the overwhelming opposition to the tax. A recent poll commissioned by the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association found that 87 percent of likely Cook County voters oppose it. Some 80 percent of respondents said they knew it was implemented to raise money and not to improve public health.

On top of that, opponents to the new tax on the Cook County Board are themselves trying to repeal it. The board split on the measure last year, 8-8, before Preckwinkle cast the deciding vote in favor.

This time, 11 County Board members would need to join a repeal vote in order to override a likely Preckwinkle veto, making it a steep uphill battle.

I’ve made a practice of avoiding routes through communities that stuff their bank accounts with red light camera money.

And, at least for now, I’ll be smuggling in Diet Cokes from the far suburbs whenever I commute to Chicago. 

• Dan McCaleb is news director of Illinois News Network and the digital hub ILNews.org. He welcomes your comments. Contact Dan at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.