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Illinois soda tax could spur border state sales

BY DAVID ZOELLERdzoeller@paducahsun.com

Supporters of a proposed Illinois penny-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages say the measure could help fight obesity, diabetes and other illnesses and raise badly needed revenue. Opponents say it would hurt business and drive consumers across border-state lines to satisfy their sweet-drink cravings.

The Sweetened Beverage Tax is among issues the Illinois Legislature could take up when it reconvenes today. The measure was introduced in the Senate and House last February by Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, and Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston. The tax would affect soda, juice drinks, sports drinks and teas. The bill allows distributors to pass on the increase to retailers, who would pass it on to the consumer. The tax would be effective Jan. 1, 2015, if approved.

State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, whose 118th District includes the bottom 11 Illinois counties, doesn't know when the measure could come up. The Legislature will be in session through May 31 and a budget must be done by then, he said.

"I don't believe they have the votes," Phelps said of the issue. "I'm a 'no' on that right now."

He said if the bill were to pass Illinois consumers would drive across state lines to save money, much like many do now to purchase gasoline.

"I have nothing against border cities," Phelps said. "I like Paducah. I go there myself sometimes, but my job is to make sure Illinois businesses prosper."

Mike Pool, owner of the Big John grocery in Metropolis, said the tax could hurt his business.

"Soda in a grocery store is almost like a commodity similar to milk," Pool said. "People shop price."

And, if they venture across the river into Paducah to buy soda, "they're going to pick up other things they need."

Pool said he understands the health concerns related to sugary beverages, and that parents need to watch how much sugar their children consume.

However, "I think people who want soda are going to buy soda."

According to the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois, proponents estimate, based on a Cook County Department of Public Health study published in 2011, the tax could generate more than $600 million and cut statewide consumption of sugary beverages by almost 150 million gallons. At least half of the revenue generated would be set aside to shore up Medicaid, the victim of recent funding cuts, the SJ-R reported.

The bill is opposed by the Illinois Beverage Association, which formed the Illinois Coalition Against Beverage Taxes to fight passage.

Soft drinks are already subject to a 6.25 percent tax in Illinois, Pool said, and the penny-per-ounce proposed tax would add $1.44 to the cost of a 12-pack.

"I don't think it will generate near the revenue they think it will," Pool said. "There's going to be businesses losing sales. Illinois has a lot of border towns ... I think that's overlooked in a situation like this."

Contact David Zoeller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.

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