Sunday Commentary: Soda Tax Deserves a Real Chance on the June Ballot

Soda-Sugar-Flier

On Monday afternoon, a collection of Davis citizens led by Delaine Eastin (Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction), Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, and Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis, Davis City Councilmember, will make a final push to get the soda tax measure on the ballot for the June election, its window as a general tax requiring a 50 percent vote.

In the alert, the proponents note, “A collection of Davis citizens are fighting for their democratic right to vote, while high-powered soda lobbyists undermine their rights at City Hall. Political, health and child advocate representatives will hold a press conference to push back against the beverage industry’s heavy-handed efforts to bury a soda tax before voters even have a chance to vote.”

They add, “Rather than risk a public vote, soda lobbyists descended on Davis, pressuring City officials to deny a public vote on a Davis Soda Tax. Advocates insist that, in the face of overwhelming science connecting sugary drinks to the nation’s rising obesity and diabetes crisis, a soda tax is a smart, proactive step toward protecting the health of children and adults and that voters should have the right to decide themselves.”

Whether one agrees with a soda tax or not, the right of the people to democratically vote for issues impacting their community is vital. That right has been undermined by the heavy pressure from the beverage industry.

Two weeks after Senator Lois Wolk, Former Assemblymember, Supervisor Helen Thomson, and former Mayor Ann Evans all came to a council meeting, pushing for council to put the soda tax on the ballot, the mayor himself backed off support for the soda tax.

At that meeting, City Manager Dirk Brazil pushed back on a council request for additional information on the Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax (SSBT), claiming, “there is a lot of workload in what you’re recommending we do.”  But council held their ground and city staff was able to analyze the SSBT along with four other tax options.

The staff report this week analyzes the Berkeley tax – which they note contains a number of exemptions including “a Small Business Exemption for distribution to retailers with less than $100,000 in annual gross receipts.”

In addition, Berkeley “exempts the distribution of any natural or common sweeteners (granulated white sugar, honey, etc.) and distribution of added caloric sweeteners to a grocery or specialty food store if the store sells the sweetener to customers for later use.”

Staff estimates that a similar tax in Davis would generate between $800,000 to $1 million annually. The city attorney believes that Davis, as a general law city, “is legally able to pursue this type of tax.”

The tax, however, has that “part of its policy objective is to change behavior and decrease consumption of sugary beverages. Such a tax could be considered successful if consumption was greatly decreased, therefore decreasing sales and reducing the overall amount of revenue the city generated through the tax.”

Therefore, staff writes, “The different nature of this tax makes it less suited for covering basic city needs and better suited to promote healthy lifestyles, the policy objective for which it was created. This is how Berkeley has approached the tax, utilizing revenues for health-related functions and specifically children’s health issues.”

In the city of Davis, “this would likely translate to funding for parks and park amenities (playgrounds, pools, fields, etc.), bike paths and lanes, and other recreation-related programs. Other County-led health-related programming or school-sponsored activities may also be logical repositories for this type of funding. Given the uncertainties surrounding the amount of potential revenue Davis would generate, as well as the ongoing revenue levels, staff would recommend this funding be considered first for one-time expenditures rather than incorporated into ongoing costs.”

The Vanguard has several thoughts on how the city ought to proceed here.

First, given the expected millions that the beverage industry will pump into the city, this needs to be a general tax. Berkeley was able to pass their version with 76 percent of the vote, but San Francisco’s fell short at 55 percent of the vote.

In order to make this a general tax, the council must put this on for the June ballot or wait two years.

Second, the council cannot designate money from this provision go to any specific purpose. However, they can pass an advisory statement of purpose and state that the money will not go to any current ongoing budget needs, employee compensation or other current general fund uses. Instead, the intent would be to create, along the lines of Berkeley’s measure, a children’s health program aimed at nutrition for at-risk kids.

Third, the proponents of the measure will then be responsible for messaging and campaigning.

Our view is then to let the community decide if they wish to enact this. The proponents have to sell the public on the need for this tax and, if they cannot, then, like in San Francisco, the measure will fail. However, the people should get the opportunity to decide.

The Vanguard remains troubled by the behind-the-scene machinations that took place in December, where the mayor quickly flipped on the issue. One way to avoid such messy politics is simply to put the measure on the ballot and allow the people to decide.

If the public doesn’t want the tax, then they can vote it down. The industry will undoubtedly spend millions to defeat this, but if Monday’s press conference and mailer from a few weeks ago show, the proponents will not take this lying down.

Should the council decide not to act this week, then the proponents will have to go the extra step and put it on the ballot themselves for November – however, that would require a two-thirds vote that the beverage industry can exploit.  The council needs to stand up to big money and let the people decide.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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35 Comments

  1. Barack Palin

    “Rather than risk a public vote, soda lobbyists descended on Davis, pressuring City officials to deny a public vote on a Davis Soda Tax.

    Who descended on City Hall?   The beverage industry or was it really the pro soda tax lobbyists?

     

     

    1. Tia Will

      BP

      Who descended on City Hall?   The beverage industry or was it really the pro soda tax lobbyists?”

      I believe that the correct answer is both. We clearly have two opposing points of view. When this is the case, I believe that a vote of the people is the appropriate response. I am not asking the CC to enact a soda tax, I am not asking any given member of the CC to promote a soda tax. I am asking as a health care provider and public health advocate to place the issue on the ballot for decision by a vote of the people.

  2. Barack Palin

     However, they can pass an advisory statement of purpose and state that the money will not go to any current ongoing budget needs and will not go to employee compensation or other current general fund uses.

    Are future councils bound to any advisory statements?  How iron clad is an advisory statement?

     

    1. Barack Palin

      Never mind, I know the answers.  An advisory statement isn’t iron clad at all and future councils aren’t bound to it, even the council that enacted it isn’t bound.

      David, I don’t understand where you’re coming from.  You want parcel taxes because they can be bound to infrastructure and roads because we’ve found that councils can’t be trusted to spend the money as promised but in turn you’re willing to now trust that the council will spend all soda tax general fund revenue as proposed?

        1. Barack Palin

          Isn’t primarily a revenue measure because of what?  That it’s supposed to deter people from buying soda?

          staff is only recommending one-time expenditures

          I don’t understand this, can you explain?.  The taxes will be ongoing and bringing in $800,000 to $1 million/year.

           

          1. David Greenwald

            Staff is believing that the tax will reduce beverage consumption and does not believe it a reliable ongoing source of revenue.

          1. David Greenwald

            “Given the uncertainties surrounding the amount of potential revenue Davis would generate, as well as the ongoing revenue levels, staff would recommend this funding be considered first for one-time expenditures rather than
            incorporated into ongoing costs.”

          1. David Greenwald

            Did you read the analysis that I quoted. I think it lays it out pretty clearly. “The different nature of this tax makes it less suited for covering basic city needs and better suited to promote healthy lifestyles, the policy objective for which it was created. This is how Berkeley has approached the tax…”

          1. David Greenwald

            The point is that if you get variable or declining revenue from the soda tax, you cannot use it to have set programs. One of the problems an organization like First 5 Yolo now faces is it’s funded by cigarette taxes and those monies are declining. It’s not double speak, it’s uncertainty. For me, this should not be a source of revenue that the city relies on for ongoing programs.

  3. Frankly

    Last year soda sales fell 2.2% making the 11th straight year of consumers cutting back over concerns about obesity according to Neilsen.

    More than 60% of Americans polled by Gallup last year said they try and avoid soda.  That trend is increasing.

    The reason for the soda tax is that tax-and-spend-happy politicians recognize that time is running out for them to get a piece of the action using the inflated argument that it serves a public health mission.

    1. David Greenwald

      I think you’re misreading the push for this, I don’t see politicians as the ones pushing this for the most part and don’t really believe there are three votes for it right now.

      1. Barack Palin

        I don’t see politicians as the ones pushing this 

        Delaine Eastin (Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction), Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, and Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis, Davis City Councilmember, will make a final push to get the soda tax measure on the ballot

         

        1. hpierce

          David… is there ONE (or more) petitions from either the general public (Davis), or the ‘public health community’ to pursue this?  If not, it is reasonable to presume it is “lobbying” (and why would that be more onerous, whether by the “soda industry”, or others), or driven by politicians?

          And, why (if it so important) aren’t we seeing a similar ‘swell of support’ for such measures in West Sac, Winters, Woodland, unincorporated Yolo County?

          Will bet a lunch that if this is voted on and passed, the proceeds would not be constrained to targeting the Davis population.

    2. Tia Will

      Frankly

      The reason for the soda tax is that tax-and-spend-happy politicians recognize that time is running out for them to get a piece of the action using the inflated argument that it serves a public health mission”

      While I could not truthfully assert that no “tax -and- spend happy” politician would never be acting on this supposition, could you at least admit that as a physician, and not a politician, I have no such motive, and yet am one of the more vocal proponents of putting this proposal up for a vote ?

  4. Don Shor

    Second, the council cannot designate money from this provision go to any specific purpose. However, they can pass an advisory statement of purpose and state that the money will not go to any current ongoing budget needs, employee compensation or other current general fund uses. Instead, the intent would be to create, along the lines of Berkeley’s measure, a children’s health program aimed at nutrition for at-risk kids.

    The council should establish a commission to disperse the funds to existing programs and through grant proposals. No new programs should be established that rely on these tax revenues for ongoing funding.

    1. hpierce

      And, for ALL the City staff costs to collect the tax, audit, disperse the funds, support the ‘commission’, etc., should have “first position” for any revenues generated.  In the first year, the funds should first be used to cover the full staff costs to date, to get it on the ballot, elections costs, and any “start-up costs”.

      Not one cent should come out of the City’s existing General Fund revenues.  Anything less than “zero sum” associated with this ‘soda tax’, is completely unacceptable, or should be…

  5. skeptical

    Which community group is pushing this?  When and where do they meet?  How many signatures did they submit on their petition to the council?  Have they crafted an initiative?  How can we get a copy of that document?  All of the questions and worries surrounding this idea should be addressed in that document.

    “A collection of Davis citizens are fighting for their democratic right to vote, …

    Seriously???  This issue has nothing to do with voting rights.  Lying to people is offensive and dissuasive.  This looks very much like something politicians are pushing.

    If the politicians or citizens behind this effort want a ballot measure, best that they put together an initiative or proposed ordinance themselves.

     

    1. Barack Palin

      Well said Skeptical.  I’ve never heard any of my friends and neighbors ever wonder why don’t we have a soda tax and why can’t we vote on one.  This is being pushed by a small group of Davis activists.

    2. Tia Will

      skeptical

      “A collection of Davis citizens are fighting for their democratic right to vote, …

      Seriously???  This issue has nothing to do with voting rights.  Lying to people is offensive and dissuasive.  This looks very much like something politicians are pushing.”

      I understand that you may not see this as a democratic issue and I respect your position. However, please be aware that as a physician with no political aspirations at all, this is exactly how I see the issue. To me, it is not lying to pose this as a “right to vote” issue. The epidemic of obesity and its associated increased risks of many, many diseases is a cost that we all bear in terms of health care expenditures. Just because it is not as visible to us as the pot hole in the road, does not make it any less dangerous or costly. I strongly believe that the citizens of our community should have a right to vote on the ways in which we are taxed.

      If one does not believe that a soda tax will be beneficial or that this is a valid approach, I disagree, but respect your opinion and your right to vote against it. Denying a vote is to say that you do not respect my opinion on the matter even enough to allow a vote on the issue. Not putting this forward for a vote is in my opinion the undemocratic position.

      1. Barack Palin

         Not putting this forward for a vote is in my opinion the undemocratic position.

        So should we as a community put every cause or issue that some small group of activists happen to dream up to a vote?

        1. David Greenwald

          There is a difference between taxes and other issues. Taxes require a vote. Other issues don’t. They go through a commission process and may end up at the council level for final approval. So the short answer, no, the community should not put every issue up to a vote. But generally speaking issues that get raised by the community are in fact handled by city government.

        2. Barack Palin

          Okay, so should we as a community put up for a vote every tax measure on a product that some small group of activists happen to think is bad for you?  After all, it’s our democratic right.

          1. David Greenwald

            I don’t know. I can tell you I believe this is the first community based tax request I have seen in the ten years I have been doing this. That seems to suggest this isn’t an overwhelming problem.

        3. Tia Will

          BP

          On other threads, hpierce has raised a legitimate issue regarding the costs of putting a tax proposal on the ballot. If there were a private individual or group willing to reimburse the city for the costs of putting the measure on the ballot if it lost, would you still have an objection ?

        4. Barack Palin

          I have an objection to any group pushing a tax measure on products that they feel people should have to pay more.  We don’t need a small group of activists pushing their preferences on the rest of us.

  6. Tia Will

    BP

     I’ve never heard any of my friends and neighbors ever wonder why don’t we have a soda tax and why can’t we vote on one.  This is being pushed by a small group of Davis activists.”

    There are many reasons that your “friends and neighbors” may not be asking for a soda tax. Maybe none of them are involved in the public health or work as health care providers. Maybe none of them have a problem with obesity or metabolic disorders Maybe they do not have an interest and/or an understanding of the relationship between overconsumption of these beverages and subsequent increased risk of a number of diseases.

    I know as a primary care physician that it is very hard to connect the lifetime increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and breast and uterine cancer to the large soda that an obese 30 year old just carried, partially consumed, into my office. Just because a problem in not high on an individual’s list of concerns, does not mean that the problem is not real and/or significant.

    Finally, while I agree that the number of activists on this issue is relatively small, it is not being driven by tax avaricious politicians, but rather by those of us involved in the health community whether on the individual or public health side.

  7. tribeUSA

    Hope the tax measure gets on the ballot–its got my vote.

    Perhaps more important is a regulatory proposal at state/federal level for a prominent warning label on sugary sodas, similar to the warning labels on cigarette packs.–public education and taxes, warning labels, etc. likely were major factors in reducing smoking in USA; perhaps a similar multi-pronged approach can also be effective for sugary drinks.

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