Pressed to pick between a food tax we fear or power we value

Initiative 1634 would bar cities and counties from levying new taxes on food or beverages.

OLYMPIA — A measure on the fall ballot pushes voters to choose between their embrace of local control and their distaste for taxes, specifically on food.

By passing Initiative 1634, voters would prevent cities and counties from levying any new tax, fee or other form of assessment on food and drink products typically sold in supermarkets.

That’s a line Everett restaurateur Kate Dearman said needs to be drawn.

“The people of Washington are taxed too much. Small businesses are taxed too much,” said Dearman, who’s owned and operated Kate’s Greek & American diner for nearly 15 years. “One more tax would make our products more expensive. And once there is one tax, there will be another after that. Where does it stop?”

Opponents are concerned that the measure would strip elected community leaders around the state of a potential means of raising money to pay for vital public services.

“This deceptive proposal would impose a one-size-fits-all state law that takes power away from voters and hands it to the state, silencing our voice in local decision-making,” said Vic Colman, who leads the Washington Healthy Kids Coalition opposing the measure, in an online video voter guide. He also is executive director of the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition

Initiative 1634 is the handiwork of the American Beverage Association, and the nation’s leading soda pop producers are pouring millions of dollars into the campaign to pass it.

As written, it preempts local governments from imposing “any tax, fee, or other assessment on groceries.” Among items specifically called out in the measure are meat, poultry, fish, fruits, vegetables, grains, bread, milk, cheese and other dairy products, nonalcoholic beverages, condiments, spices, cereals, seasonings and eggs.

It does not block state lawmakers from approving taxes on any of those items statewide.

Alcoholic beverages, tobacco and marijuana products, which are regulated and taxed by the state, are excluded from the measure.

Today, most but not all items one can buy in a supermarket and mentioned in the language of the ballot measure are exempt from sales tax.

Fruits, vegetables, meats and bread are not taxed, for example. Neither are cereal, canned beans, packages of donuts, bags of chips and candy bars.

But bottled water — be it from a mountain spring or purified — is subject to tax. Soda products, whether in cans or plastic bottles, are too.

When sales tax is applied, cities and counties get a share. If an item is exempt from the state sales tax, it is beyond the reach of local governments to impose their own sales tax.

Seattle cleared a new path for itself and theoretically other cities in 2017 with passage of its sweetened beverage tax. Unlike a retail sales tax, this levy is based on volume and paid by the distributor of sweetened drinks.

On Jan. 1, the city started collecting the $.0175 per fluid ounce of sweetened beverage and anticipates taking in as much as $24 million in the first year, according to state estimates. Initial receipts were spent by the city on early learning, healthy-food programs and community-college scholarships.

The initiative is a direct response as soda makers saw their products became instantly more expensive.

Initiative 1634 does not repeal Seattle’s regulation but prevents the city from increasing or expanding it. The measure would prevent other cities and counties from enacting a similar tax but does not prevent state lawmakers from imposing something like it throughout Washington.

This ballot battle is the latest front in a broader national tussle.

The first soda tax was approved in Berkeley, California, in 2014. Since then, several other cities have followed suit. In November 2016, voters approved soda taxes in Boulder, Colorado, and three cities in California — San Francisco, Oakland and Albany — in spite of spirited opposition from the beverage industry.

One of the beverage association’s few victories came last year when Michigan lawmakers approved a statewide ban on local taxes on sweetened-beverage drinks and food.

As of Monday morning, four corporations had given a collective $13 million to Yes! to Affordable Groceries!, the political committee behind the campaign, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

Coca-Cola Co. is the largest donor at $6.2 million, followed by PepsiCo at $4.7 million, Keurig Dr Pepper at $1.9 million, and Red Bull North America at $152,619.

There are only two other donors listed — Washington Food Industy Association, which gave $20,000, and the Washington Hospitality Association, which provided $266 worth of staff services as an in-kind contribution.

By comparison, the coalition opposing it had raised a minuscule $1,250 from two contributors.

On the campaign trail — and in a steady diet of television commercials — supporters say the measure aims to close a loophole in state law regarding taxes on food products, which was exposed by Seattle. Doing that will protect families from paying higher prices in grocery stores, they said.

“I-1634 isn’t about Seattle or a sugary drink tax. It’s about protecting our grocery cart,” said Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for the committee backing the measure.

If it fails, she said, “There’s nothing to stop other cities and towns from taxing grocery items. The opposition continues to mislead voters by suggesting this tactic is illegal. It’s not, and the Seattle tax is proof that it is not.”

Opponents counter that the large campaign donations from soda makers show they are focused on protecting profits not aiding families and communities.

“The only reason this is on the ballot is Big Soda is spending $13 million on a campaign to mislead voters,” said Aaron Pickus, spokesman for Washington Healthy Kids Coalition. “The entire campaign depends on people not understanding what they are trying to do.”

The goal, opponents say, is taking away a financing tool from leaders of local governments.

“Passing this initiative is a slippery slope toward greater state and corporate control at the expense of our cities, towns and local communities,” Colman said.

Schwartz disagreed. The measure lets voters express themselves on the potential of new taxes on items they buy at the supermarket.

“No one is taking away local control,” she said. “We have no opinion on how local communities fund or support their priorities – as long as they take the grocery cart off the table.”

The election is Nov. 6.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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