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