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State legislator wants 25-cent tax on athletic shoes to help fund youth job training

A hot item for back-to-school shopping is this look for him: New Balance 913 Athletic Shoes-Boys Kohls $49.99.  Phocourtesy

A hot item for back-to-school shopping is this look for him: New Balance 913 Athletic Shoes-Boys, Kohls, $49.99. Photo courtesy Kohls Department Store

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:46AM

SPRINGFIELD — Illinoisans shopping for a new pair of tennis shoes could be coughing up an extra quarter at the cash register starting this summer if a south suburban lawmaker has his way.

The newly introduced bill, sponsored by Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest), would impose a 25-cent tax on the purchase of athletic shoes — described in the bill as any “shoe designed primarily for sports or other forms of physical activity.”

Davis hopes to allocate the tax’s proceeds to a fund supporting Illinois YouthBuild — a non-profit with 16 programs in the state that provide job training for disadvantaged youth. It currently has three Chicago sites and one in Lake County.

“This organization, of which there is a chapter here in the south suburbs, approached me about a creative way for which they could find some resources,” Davis said.

Operating primarily with federal funds from the U.S. Department of Labor, Illinois YouthBuild programs began receiving state money in 1997 through the Department of Human Services. But as with many other state-funded programs, budget constraints have halted funding for the last three years.

The organization has seen eight of its Illinois programs closed in the last decade, including five in Chicago.

Nancy Jackson, executive director for the organization sponsoring the Englewood YouthBuild, said it used to receive some funding left over from other programs.

“But since [2009] we’ve been waiting to hear if an opportunity was going to present itself,” she said.

Davis views the shoe tax as a practical way to revive the program’s funding, especially since YouthBuild is “a very youth-oriented program,” and because he believes “many pairs of athletic shoes are purchased by young people.”

“Fortunately for [YouthBuild], I don’t see how an additional 25 cents on a pair of tennis shoes should be a challenge,” Davis said.

But many Illinois business leaders, especially in light of the state’s recent credit-rating downgrade by Standard and Poor’s, would view the tax as a deterrent for business.

“Obviously were opposed to it,” said Rob Karr, vice president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “We don’t like product-specific taxes. Taxes should be broad based.”

Davis said “it’s not [the bill’s] intent to put any undue burden on retailers,” however, the bill would require Illinois retailers to file a special monthly tax return to the Department of Revenue.

Similar product-specific taxes are not uncommon in Illinois, where entry fees at strip clubs to pay for domestic abuse programs and a $2 license plate fee to fund state parks were passed last year.

Davis predicts a tough debate in the House because “anything that has taxes associated with it or raises fees is gonna be difficult to pass,” but he thinks the bill’s good intentions could be enough to move it forward.

“I can’t think of too many people that don’t talk about having programs for young people,” he said. “If you bought a pair of gym shoes would you pay an additional 25 cents if that money were going to support youth and youth activities?”

Illinois YouthBuild Coalition president Kerry Knodle certainly hopes so, but he says his organization is still pondering the best method for future funding.

“We’ve been in touch with [Davis’] office, and obviously there’s questions we have, like what are the numbers that go along with that proposed tax,” he said. “I haven’t seen numbers on what that proposed tax might generate”

With the fate of the shoe tax resting on House members’ shoulders, Knodle hopes to have a separate appropriations bill introduced to reallocate $1.5 million to YouthBuild for FY14.

“We’re not ruling out new revenue but also not ruling out reallocation of existing revenues,” he said. “Our first choice would be to somehow find a way to patch together some existing money, if not just from DHS, perhaps there are some other state departments.”

“There’s a lot of green between now and June.”

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