By Hal Dardick

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is prepared to spend millions of dollars more to make sure backers of Cook County's controversial soda pop tax don't suffer defeat in next year's elections, a spokesman for the former New York mayor said Monday.

"Mike has made a commitment that he will do everything necessary to ensure that the elected officials who stood up against the soda industry are re-elected," spokesman Howard Wolfson said. "And when I asked him what figure he had in mind for that purpose, his answer was, 'Whatever it takes.'"

Bloomberg's announcement comes after a new political action committee calling itself Citizens for a More Affordable Cook County on Thursday announced its formation and intent to back County Board candidates "who will make the county more affordable for working families and easier for small businesses to thrive." The group's treasurer is well-known Democratic attorney Michael Kasper, who counts among his clients the American Beverage Association.

And it comes two days before county commissioners opposed to the penny-an-ounce tax on sugar- and artificially sweetened beverages will introduce their repeal proposal before the County Board. On Tuesday, the Can the Tax Coalition backed by the beverage industry plans to stage a repeal rally at the Thompson Center Plaza, where they intend to make an issue of Bloomberg's involvement.

"Cook County commissioners have a choice when it comes to the future of the county's unfair, over-reaching and vastly unpopular beverage tax: they can stand with Cook County (Board) President Toni Preckwinkle and New York City billionaire Michael Bloomberg -- or they can stand with county residents and businesses and repeal the tax," a news release promoting the rally stated.

Commissioner Richard Boykin, an Oak Park Democrat and repeal sponsor, is expected to take part in the rally an hour after presenting a plan to cut county spending to show "ways the county can continue to operate if the tax is eliminated."

The effort by anti-beverage tax retailers backed by the deep pockets of Big Soda is trying to paint Bloomberg as a Big Apple carpetbagger interfering in Windy City business. Wolfson, a Democratic political operative who's now the senior adviser at Bloomberg Philanthropies, said his side needs to be heard too.

"I think that this is an issue that will be decided on the merits, and our goal is to make sure that people hear both sides of the argument, because certainly the soda industry -- which the last time I looked is not headquartered in Chicago either -- is likely to be heavily engaged," Wolfson said. "Pepsi is in New York and Coke is in Atlanta, so they are obviously from those places, offering their perspectives on this issue and sharing it with people in Chicago."

Bloomberg, the owner of a media empire, already has committed $5 million to a TV advertising campaign promoting what he views as the health benefits of the tax, which public health advocates say will reduce the sugar consumption that can contribute to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The beverage industry has committed $1.4 million to TV spots promoting repeal, contending that Preckwinkle engineered the passage of a tax to feed a bloated county government, not promote public health. That effort comes on top of Can the Tax raid ads that have been airing for months, the organization of anti-beverage tax events and a lawsuit by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association that delayed implementation of the tax, which went into effect in early August.

Preckwinkle last November broke a rare County Board tie vote to approve the tax. She has repeatedly stated that the tax is a way to raise money to prevent layoffs at the county's criminal justice and health systems that also has a public health benefit.

It's not clear that backers of repeal have the votes they need to succeed, particularly when it comes to overriding Preckwinkle's expected veto of any repeal ordinance. On Wednesday, their proposal is expected to be referred to the Finance Committee for October consideration.

As a way of highlighting Bloomberg's financial wherewithal, Wolfson said Bloomberg spent $20 million to back successful referendums last year in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., to enact soda taxes. Wolfson said the effort was designed to counter the $30 million spent by the soda industry. Bloomberg also spent smaller amounts to back soda taxes in Berkeley, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; and Philadelphia.

Wolfson said backing soda taxes is in keeping with Bloomberg's interest in public health.

"All of the public health issues have been sort of near and dear to him," Wolfson said. "He has led the fight in the United States and around the world against the tobacco industry. He spent about a billion dollars in the last decade to fight Big Tobacco in the United States and around the world. He sees companies that are distributing products that are not good for people and contribute to really, really bad health outcomes -- and (are) spending enormous amounts of money to market those products to people."

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