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Soda Tax Makes Two California Ballots

  • Aug 20, 2014 | Gail Cole

 Both San Francisco and Berkeley have soda taxes on the November ballot.

Update, 10.8.2014: The battle between the soda industry and San Francisco and Berkeley is going strong. To date, Big Soda has spent $1.4 million to defeat Measure D in Berkeley (a city of 117,000 people), and $7.7 million to defeat Proposition E in San Francisco (population 837,000). Revenue raised by soda tax proponents in the Bay Area communities is paltry in comparison: $135,000 in Berkeley and $260,000 in San Francisco.

Still, optimism is high among soda tax supporters in Berkeley, where only a simple majority is needed to win in November. It is more muted in San Francisco, where a two-thirds majority is required to win (NY Times).

City officials in both San Francisco and Berkeley have placed a soda tax on the November 2014 ballot.

San Francisco’s Proposition E seeks to impose a $0.02 per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. In other words, tax on a 12 ounce soda would be 24 cents.

Berkeley’s Measure D would impose a “1¢ per ounce general tax on the distribution of high-calorie, sugary drinks (e.g., sodas, energy drinks, presweetened teas) and sweeteners used to sweeten such drinks….” The Berkeley measure would exempt:

  • Sweeteners such as sugar and honey “typically used by consumers and distributed to grocery stores.”
  • Drinks and sweeteners “distributed to very small retailers.”
  • "Diet drinks, milk products, 100% juice, baby formula, alcohol, and drinks taken for medical reasons."

Revenue generated by the San Francisco special tax would fund athletic programs, nutrition and physical education at schools, and recreation centers. It would also fund the installation of water fountains throughout the city. According to Choose Health SF, a pro-soda tax organization, “San Franciscans are spending as much as $62 million a year in health care costs that are directly attributable to sugar-sweetened beverages.” The soda tax, it says, “could provide $31 million per year in revenue….”

In contrast, revenue generated by the Berkeley soda tax would be added to the general fund, contributing to basic city services and programs. The LA Times underscores that while Berkeley’s leadership could use the revenue to fund school and community nutrition programs, “there’s nothing binding future officials to do the same.” This, says, the LA Times, is “the reason San Francisco’s proposal is better than Berkeley’s.”

“The game is on”

Already a lawsuit against the City of Berkeley over its proposed soda tax has been filed. The lawsuit contends that Berkeley’s proposed one-cent-per-one-ounce tax on sugary beverages is ‘false, misleading, and legally biased.” It seems Big Soda is behind the suit, as one of men behind it is associated with the No Berkeley Beverage Tax campaign, “which is fighting the tax and receives major funding from the American Beverage Association.”

The lawsuit takes issue with the ballot’s language. Roger Salazar of No Berkeley Beverage Tax accuses the city of “trying to cover up a number of exemptions and loopholes with a false and misleading ballot label and analysis. Measure D isn’t about children; it’s about raising revenue into the general fund.”

A spokesman for the Healthy Child Campaign disagrees, insisting that “the ballot language is fair and accurate.”

Fighting big soda = a big fight

Voters in Richmond and El Monte, California, rejected soda taxes during November 2012 elections. Hawaii lawmakers considered a tax on sugar sweetened beverages last year but then decided the time was not right. The proposal to tax sweetened beverages in Illinois has gone nowhere thus far, and while New York City came close to imposing a ban on super-sized sodas, the ban was banned at the last minute. Soda taxes have a variety of opponents (as well as proponents, of course), the most powerful of which is the soda industry. It has the resources to throw a lot of money at localities striving to tax sugary drinks.

It may need those resources. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) has introduced The Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax Act of 2014, which seeks to impose "a tax on the sale or transfer of any specified sugar-sweetened beverage product by the manufacturer, producer, or importer thereof." The bill reads:

"The rate of tax imposed ... shall be equal to one cent per 4.2 grams of caloric sweetener contained in such specified sugar-sweetened beverage product."

Is the United States ready for a national soda tax? Only time will tell.

photo credit: wakalani via photopin cc

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Gail Cole
Avalara Author
Gail Cole
Gail Cole
Avalara Author Gail Cole
Gail began researching and writing about sales tax in 2012 and has been fascinated with it ever since. She has a penchant for uncovering unusual tax facts, and endeavors to make complex sales tax laws more digestible for both experts and laypeople.