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Will SF's Soda Tax Go Flat by November?

Scott Lucas | July 23, 2014 | Story Politics

After a vote at the Board of Supervisors last night, San Franciscans will be asked to consider a $.02 per ounce tax on sodas and sugary beverages in the fall. As we recently wrote, the tax could be major blow to soda companies, and a boon to public health. In fact, a new report from the city's economist said that it could reduce soda consumption in the city by 31 percent.

But that is, of course, dependent on the measure actually passing. And if the vote at the Board is any indication, soda tax proponents may have a harder time winning over voters than previously anticipated.

The Supervisors voted the soda tax onto the ballot by a narrow 6-4 margin. And though a win is a win for bill sponsors like Supervisor Scott Wiener, the number of opponents was surprisingly high. Supervisors London Breed, Jane Kim, Katy Tang, and Norman Yee all voted against the tax, some of them vehemently. "This is being forced down people's throats," said Breed. Her collegue, Supervisor Kim, said, "A regressive flat tax is not the way to go. Instead of taxing the things we don't want to see, we should be subsidizing the food that we want people to be eating."

Wiener rejected the idea that the close vote signaled difficulties for the measure in the fall. "One time, I got a charter amendment through the board with a supermajority, and it got 33 percent with the voters. They make up their own minds."

What should worry proponents of the tax is the sets of arguments that opponents put forward yesterday. Supervisor Kim, for example, pointed to the regressive features of the tax, whereas others raised concerns about its effectiveness. Putting those arguments together with opposition from small businesses—witness the signs that have sprung up in many corner markets since the soda tax was first floated—as well as the untold millions that the soda industry will spend to defeat the measure, could mean that it will be difficult for the tax to reach the two-thirds threshold it needs in order to become law.

An opinion piece in yesterday's LA Times made the case that the San Francisco soda tax proposal—because it earmarked funds for public health—was superior to a similar tax on the ballot in Berkeley—which deposits proceeds from the tax into the city's general fund. That might be true, but San Francisco's approach, which mandates that tax funds are funneled into a smattering of public health initiatives, requires a supermajority—or two-thirds of the popular vote—to pass. Berkeley's version, on the other hand, requires only a simple majority.

In any case, Wiener is still optimistic about the proposition's chances, and he disagreed with Kim's claim that the tax was regressive. "It's not any more regressive than a cigarette tax is," he said. "Low-income communities will disproportionately benefit from it."

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