Board President Toni Preckwinkle at Center of Budget and Soda Tax Debates
A battle has been brewing in Illinois over the Cook County sweetened beverage tax, commonly known as the soda tax. The delay of the planned tax has led to Cook County layoffs as the local government struggles to balance its budget.
At the center of the debacle is Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County board president, who is under attack by opponents of the tax, who believe that the county government is behaving recklessly and irresponsibly in the wake of the soda tax being held up in court.
On the other hand, Preckwinkle and supporters of the tax argue that the job cuts are necessary, as the revenue windfall that they had expected to reap with the soda tax cannot be counted on while it is delayed by legal proceedings. As much as $68.0 million is thought to be lost out, due to the lack of the penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened drinks.
Still, those who oppose the soda tax view its postponement as a victory, even if more Cook County layoffs may follow. Critics argued that the proposed tax is a cash-grab, rather than a public health initiative that it was ostensibly being passed off as.
While the tax is not yet dead, a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Retail and Merchants Association (IRMA) has, at the very least, delayed the tax and sent it before a judge, who granted a temporary restraining order that prevents the county from initiating the tax.
“Unfortunately, the lawsuit filed by the IRMA and others just days before the tax was to take effect has led to what is likely to be a protracted legal fight,” said Preckwinkle. “And while we believe we will ultimately prevail, we must take fiscally responsible actions now.”
Those who are critical of Preckwinkle view her newest proposal to cut $200.0 million from the county’s budget—to offset the estimated loss of revenue caused by the delay to the proposed soda tax— as a bullying tactic to force the judge’s hand.
Cook County, IL Government to Lay Off Employees at Hospital, Sheriff’s Office, and Circuit Court
The Cook County layoffs are expected to take place at all levels, with many public institutions taking a hit. The job cuts are likely to come to mid-level managers, while pay freezes and mandatory unpaid days off are also likely to take effect in the workforce.
The job cuts are expected to affect a variety of public services, including the sheriff’s office, the circuit court, and the health sector. Every county department has been asked to reduce its spending by 10%.
The layoffs at the circuit court mean that 63 of the 430 workers at the Public Defender’s Office will be shed. The State Attorney’s office similarly cut 17 prosecutors and 22 staffers. The hospital layoffs amounted to fewer than 100 people.
In August, it was stated that the majority of the proposed 1,100 job cuts were set to be landing with law enforcement. Preckwinkle’s office asked the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to cut 825 people. In November, however, it was reported that sheriff’s office would only face 244 layoffs, and that the county judge’s office would have 22 layoffs.
The sheriff’s office has said that it is working to hit the 10% spending reduction target, even though it is already short-handed at the county jail.
In addition, laying off workers, the county is looking to eliminate 1,000 currently-vacant jobs, saving about $50.0 million. As of July, Some 600 vacant positions were shed from the 2017 budget.
Measures that Cook County, IL Government Can Take to Avoid Layoffs
Layoffs and job eliminations aren’t the only tools that the county is using in its attempt and balancing its budget.
The biggest portion of the $200.0-million budget cut target will derive from freezing salaries, delaying the purchases of equipment, requiring unpaid furlough days for employees at the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, and cuts to spending on travel, postage, office supplies, as well as a justice program and a drug school program aimed at non-violent offenders.
Proposed new sources of revenue include increased parking enforcement and the collection of cigarette and alcohol taxes. The sum total of those savings and revenue increases should amount to $96.0 million.
In a searing Op-Ed for the Chicago Tribune, Richard Boykin, 1st district Cook County commissioner, lambasted the soda tax and Preckwinkle, laying out his views on how best to balance the budget without instituting the massive Cook County layoffs. He suggested several actions that the county could take, including a hiring freeze and the elimination of vacant positions, both of which are already being undertaken by the board.
“The board president now insists that without the sweetened beverage tax, the county must make sweeping, disastrous cuts to essential public safety services. These across-the-board cuts impact services we can ill afford to lose amid rampant shootings in poor communities of color,” wrote Boykin in July.
“However, just as her assertion that the sweetened beverage tax was motivated by public health turned out to be a false justification designed to push through a revenue grab, President Preckwinkle’s current insistence on these painful cuts presents the judiciary with another false choice designed to intimidate.”
It does seem that, even if Cook County layoffs can be avoided without the sweetened beverage tax, at the very least, pay freezes will have to be put in place, leaving many suffering from stagnant wages (a problem facing millions of workers across the country).
Cook County, IL Layoffs in July 2017
I regret that these actions are necessary – and I deeply regret the impact they have on individual employees. One of the main reasons I proposed the modest tax on sweetened beverages last year was specifically to avoid these kind of cuts. I value the work undertaken by our dedicated employees as well as the services the County provides. The FY2017 budget, which was passed by the Board last November in a 13-4 vote, included that revenue.
The debate over the soda tax plan and the potential Cook County layoffs have created a tense environment, where the board and various departments are trying to come to terms with each other and balance the budget—with workers likely to bear the brunt of the consequences.
“Commentary: We can balance Cook County’s budget without dangerous layoffs — or a soda tax,” Chicago Tribune, July 24, 2017.
“Without soda tax revenue, Preckwinkle proposes layoffs and budget cuts for 2018,” WGN 9, November 14, 2017.
“Cook County layoff notices land Friday as soda tax remains bottled up,” Chicago Sun-Times, September 8, 2017.
“Preckwinkle Outlines Plan To Make Up For Loss Of Soda Tax Revenue,” CBS Chicago, November 14, 2017.
“Cook County lays off more than 300 employees after soda tax delay,” ABC 7, July 14, 2017.