CHICAGO — With signs indicating the Cook County Board is poised to soon repeal the unpopular "pop tax," a Cook County commissioner has also set the stage to rewrite the rules by which county administrators can go about creating rules to collect taxes and impose regulations, potentially addressing a major complaint of businesses in the wake of the county's controversy-plagued rollout of the tax this summer.
In September, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Democrat who represents the county's 13th District, which includes Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood and a swath of north and northwest suburbs, introduced an ordinance calling for the creation of a county board committee to oversee the writing of administrative rules.
The ordinance would empower the new committee to review all new proposed rules written by Cook County departments, ensuring the rules are legal and are written with various goals in mind, including ensuring they are "designed to minimize economic impact on small businesses."
During the spring and early summer, county bureaucrats rolled out the rules to govern enforcement and collection of the county's controversial sweetened beverage tax, which was passed by one vote, thanks to a tie-breaker from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Suffredin was among those who voted for the tax, and, in a recent interview, said he believed the tax was needed to fund government services in the county.
Suffredin said Cook County is obligated to fund one of the largest public government systems, including health care in the country. Finding the money to run it all has become more difficult in recent years.
“Things were getting tighter and tighter and we were $190 million short on the revenue side,” Suffredin said. “The burden is on us. We have to fund services, including two hospitals, a jail and 16 health clinics, including one for a juvenile detention facility. Combined we have over a million patients a year.”
Suffredin said he believed the tax could also have an added health benefit might result, by discouraging consumption of sugar-added drinks, and drawing "attention to the volume of soda consumed and the resulting calories."
"We spend millions on treating health-related issues," Suffredin said.
However, since its inception, the tax has been unpopular, with polls indicating nearly 9 in 10 county residents oppose the tax. Retailers, in particular, warned the tax would drive business to shops in neighboring counties, as consumers seek to avoid the tax, while creating a regulatory and legal nightmare for retailers, who could face actions from both county officials and lawyers seeking to score quick wins in court against shopkeepers who may make mistakes in assessing the tax.
In the weeks following the imposition of the tax on Aug. 1, lawyers have filed a number of such class action lawsuits against convenience stores, supermarkets and restaurants, among others, over hiccups in the collection of the tax.
With reports pouring in of substantial cuts to retail sales, and growing political anger over the tax, county board members have indicated in published reports they have the votes now to repeal the tax when the county board next meets on Oct. 11.
However, under Suffredin's ordinance, the county board could also do more than just remove the ordinance, but would also more fundamentally deal with how county officials interact with the public when installing new taxes and regulations.
Before the tax took effect, retailers expressed frustration and alarm over the county's process in creating the administrative rules governing the collection of the tax and enforcement of the ordinance.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association, for instance, has noted county officials made six rule changes on the fly, as the ordinance's effective date neared, including some just days before the ordinance took effect, leaving retailers scrambling to keep up and comply.
"We are pleased that Commissioner Suffredin, a staunch supporter of Cook County’s sweetened beverage tax, admits that the County’s administrative rules making process is broken and in need of substantial reform," said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association in an emailed statement. "Whether it is this issue or any other, no citizen subject to government regulation should be deprived of the right to review and comment on proposed government regulations."
The proposed ordinance on administrative rulemaking was referred in September to the county's Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee. The proposal did not appear on the agenda for that committee's meeting on Oct. 11.