Judge bars implementation of proposed sugary beverages tax

An Illinois judge on Friday temporarily halted the implementation of Cook County's sweetened beverage tax, which is opposed by retailers.

Judge Daniel Kubasiak granted a temporary restraining order requested by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and several grocers. In a lawsuit against the Cook County Department of Revenue, they argue the tax creates classifications between sweetened beverages that violates the uniformity clause of the Illinois Constitution and is unconstitutionally vague.

David Ruskin, a lawyer for the retailers, argued during a Thursday hearing that a restraining order was needed because there currently isn't a system for refunds to occur should the tax eventually be found unconstitutional.

Assistant State's Attorney Sisavanh Baker told the judge that the retailers lack standing in court since they're just collecting the tax from consumers.

"This is a lawful tax," Baker said, adding that if the tax is found unconstitutional, dollars collected can be refunded — which means that there's no irreparable harm.

County officials touted the tax, which was passed in November, for its financial and health benefits.

Cook County officials have said the tax would bring in around $200 million a year in revenue. They added the tax could also help public health, curbing obesity, diabetes and other health problems that are commonly linked to sugary beverages.

The tax covers carbonated soft drinks, whether sweetened with sugar or a substitute such as aspartame, sports drinks and energy drinks. Fruit drinks also will be taxed, but 100 percent fruit juice is exempt.

The burden of the tax would fall heavily on consumers. However, if retailers don't include it in purchases, they could be subject to a fine of $1,000 for the first offense, and $2,000 for the second and each subsequent offense.

Philadelphia approved a sugary beverages tax last year. Voters in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, California, and Boulder, Colorado, approved similar taxes in November.