Soda Tax Movement Suffers a Setback

Voters resoundingly push back in Santa Fe.

Santa Fe soda tax vote

Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Santa Fe Vice President Kathy Hart urges voters to reject a tax on sugary beverages in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on May 2. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

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Unlike San Francisco, Philadelphia, Oakland and Boulder, Colorado, Santa Fe will not be taxing soda any time soon. The New Mexico capital — a blue dot in a generally purple state — voted down a tax on sweetened drinks Tuesday, ending a contentious race that was the costliest yet for advocacy groups.

The AP reports: “Political groups spent at least $163 per vote to sway the outcome of a soda tax proposal that New Mexico’s capital city resoundingly rejected, eclipsing the costs of recent campaigns in other cities and raising the financial stakes in efforts to tax sweetened beverages nationwide.”

Nearly 60 percent of voters rejected the 2-cent-per-ounce tax which, like its Philadelphia counterpart, would have funded pre-K programs. The initiative was introduced by Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales.

According to the AP, outside advocates on both sides of the issue spent similar amounts. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s bankrolled several pro-tax campaigns, contributed $1.1 million. The American Beverage Association put in $1.3 million against the tax. Altogether, political groups spent $3.25 million on the race. “The expenses far exceeded last year’s soda-tax campaign in the slightly larger city of Boulder, Colorado, where an estimated $1.8 million was spent on the most expensive ballot initiative in its history,” the AP reports.

Voters generally resisted the tax as “an unfair overreach by city leaders and not the best way to fulfill a recognized need for expanding access to preschool programs,” according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

That paper reports that Republican Governor Susana Martinez issued this statement Tuesday: “Tonight’s results send a clear message: Even in arguably the most liberal city in the state, New Mexicans don’t have the appetite to pay higher taxes.”

But the Santa Fe mayor is apparently undeterred. Gonzales, a Democrat, has said in the past that he may run for governor, and his Tuesday statement indicated that he wouldn’t be throwing in the towel, at least in the fight for pre-K.

“As long as you have a situation where some kids have and other kids don’t when it comes to educational opportunities, we can’t give up,” he said, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Berkeley was the first U.S. city to pass a soda tax in 2014. Last year Philadelphia also passed a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax in June, and San Francisco, Oakland, Boulder and Albany, California passed similar initiatives in November. Philadelphia’s measure took effect in January, and Pepsi has since stopped distributing certain larger sizes of soft drinks to grocers within city limits.

According to the AP, soda tax advocates are now shifting their attention to other cities, including Seattle.

After the Philadelphia tax passed, Mayor Jim Kenney had some advice for other cities looking to further such measures: Make it about the money, not the sugar.

“Tie your efforts to tangible initiatives that people care about,” he said at a news conference last year.

“Unlike in New York, where the public health benefits of reducing sugary drink consumption took center stage, Kenney framed the tax debate around revenue,” Jen Kinney wrote for Next City. “Philadelphia is one of the country’s poorest cities; an annual $91 million could go a long way toward funding popular programs, like universal pre-K, which is estimated to cost $60 million per year.”

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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