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Lawmakers, shoppers blast soda tax proposals

Area lawmakers and consumers alike blasted two proposals to impose a tax on sugary beverages.

Twin bills introduced in February in both legislative houses in Springfield call for a penny-per-ounce tax – or $2.88 per 24-can case of soda – that would raise an estimated $600 million for prevention and health care, according to the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity.

Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, and Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, introduced the bills, which are aimed at curbing obesity in the state.

“I think this is a reasonable approach to a serious problem,” Gabel said. “It’s a good way to bring awareness and, ultimately, the reduction of obesity and diabetes.”

State Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, made light of the proposal.

“Everybody knows the No. 1 cause of obesity is the spoon and fork,” Bivins said. “Maybe we should ban them or tax them or register them.”

The proposed tax places half of the new revenue into a wellness fund, which would support initiatives that promote nutrition, physical activity, school health and wellness, and obesity prevention. The other half would support the Illinois Medicaid program.

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said he doesn’t view the proposal as altruistic.

“This is more about revenue than about really dealing with the health care or individual health and obesity problems we’re facing,” Syverson said. “The idea that a few cents added to the cost of a soft drink will change behavior is not borne out by any real data.”

Syverson said the more productive route, if health issues truly are the impetus for the proposal, would be to start by making changes in the products purchased with food stamps.

“People should have the right to purchase junk food, but not with government dollars,” Syverson said.

Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said he’s received several emails from constituents who are opposed to the bill.

“I’m all for making healthy choices, but I don’t think a tax is the right thing to do right now,” Demmer said.

Meanwhile, shoppers at Hy-Vee in Sycamore called the proposal ridiculous.

“It would be ridiculous to add another tax,” said Karen Phillips of Genoa. “Groceries are already so expensive.”

“How do they expect people to live?” said Phillips’ shopping companion, Kelly Mainard of Genoa. “Everything is going up except wages.”

With a 12-pack of canned lemonade in her shopping cart, Mary Ann Maurice of DeKalb agreed. She doubted it would change her shopping habits, though.

“I buy the lemonade to have it on hand for my grandkids,” Maurice said.

Rep. Bob Pritchard, R-Hinckley, doesn’t think the bill will progress.

“Even if you impose a sales tax of several cents, unless people are convinced that drinking sugary drinks is a bad idea, what have you accomplished?” Pritchard said. “You’ve just increased the cost of living.”

Since introduction, SB 3524 has been sent to the Senate Assignments Committee, and HB 5690 has been referred to the House Sales and Other Taxes Subcommittee.

“It’s pretty well dead,” Pritchard said. “That’s where House bills go to die.”

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