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June 27, 2017
Ryan McLaughlin, 312-969-0255
Retailers File Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction to Block Cook County’s Sweetened Beverage Tax
Vague regulations and policy’s lack of uniformity violate the state’s constitution
SPRINGFIELD – Today, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, on behalf of Cook County retailers, filed a temporary restraining order and is seeking a preliminary injunction in the Cook County Circuit Court challenging the sweetened beverage tax saying it violates the uniformity clause of the Illinois Constitution and is impermissibly vague. The ordinance is designed to place a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages and is poised to go into effect in only a matter of days on Saturday, July 1st. The lawsuit was filed by the law firm of Horwood Marcus & Berk who specialize in state and local tax as well as business and finance law.
The sweetened beverage tax creates classifications of taxable sweetened beverages that violate the uniformity clause of the state’s constitution, which requires taxing bodies to draw reasonable classes of taxable categories and imposes a uniform tax within the classes. Specifically, the ordinance taxes ready-to-drink, pre-made sweetened beverages, but generally excludes sweetened beverages made on demand. Not only are these sweetened beverages the same other than how they are served, but when considering the purpose of the ordinance, to promote public health and decrease obesity rates, the classification bears no reasonable relationship to accomplishing those goals. The argument can be made that Cook County has failed to meet the minimum standards in creating classes of taxable sweetened beverages.
Example of a violation of the uniformity clause:
A ready-to-drink sweetened iced tea served out of a chilled beverage urn is taxable, but a sweetened iced tea that is shaken behind the counter before giving it to the customer is not taxable. The beverages are substantially similar, except for the “shake” before giving it to the customer.
Additionally, the ordinance is impermissibly vague and fails to provide precise application under the circumstances it is intended to operate, creating a burden on retailers to accurately calculate the proper amount of tax.
Example of vagueness in the ordinance:
A retailer is responsible for collecting the Sweetened Beverage Tax for fountain sodas based on the amount it will sell in a certain-sized cup. In practice, however, by adding ice, the retailer is actually serving less sweetened beverage than the tax which was collected from the customer. A similar problem is possible in the refill context when the tax could be under-collected based on additional ounces consumed, with either scenario leaving the retailer legally exposed in an untenable situation.
Causing further complication, there has been an unavailability of guidance on the issue with the County changing the rules just days before the tax goes into effect making it impossible for retailers to properly implement in such quick order.
Ever-changing rules for SNAP may result in retailers being pushed out of program
SNAP does not allow a state or local unit of government to collect local sales taxes on purchases made under this program. Many retailers may not be able to correctly charge the Sweetened Beverage Tax, especially since the rules have been changed approximately two weeks prior to the date retailers must begin collecting the tax. If retailers do not comply they might be in jeopardy violating the terms of their SNAP contracts. In some cases, SNAP represents a significant portion of their business.
“As it stands, this ordinance is incomplete and it’s a perfect example of the disaster that awaits when policies are hurried through without serious thought to how they might impact the businesses that have to try to comply with these policies. To implement this tax correctly by the July 1 deadline is inconceivable with rules and regulations that are so poorly defined and continually changing. If enacted, Cook County retailers would be unfairly exposed to lawsuits for failure to comply and that’s a situation we’re not willing to accept for the retailers in Cook County,” said Rob Karr, president and CEO of IRMA.
Retailers are urging the court to block implementation of the ordinance due to the lack of clarity in how to properly apply and administer the tax and its unequal application.
About the Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA)
One of the largest state retail organizations in the United States, IRMA serves as the voice of retailing and the business community in state government. Founded in 1957, IRMA represents more than 20,000 stores of all sizes and merchandise lines. From the nation’s largest retailers to independent businesses in every corner of the State, merchants count on IRMA to fight for the best possible environment in which to do business in Illinois.
About Horwood, Marcus & Berk
Horwood Marcus & Berk is a Chicago law firm that represents a wide range of clients from Fortune 500 corporations, to mid-sized and closely-held companies. While serving a number of different industries, the firm is specializing in state and local tax as well as business and finance law. In recent years, the firm has fought on the side of retailers in Qui tam lawsuits, which whistleblowers have used to unfairly target companies under the False Claims Act.
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