Politics & Government

Falling flat at California Capitol, soda tax wars go local

Campaign manager Sara Soka, center, celebrates with fellow supporters after the passing of Measure D, imposing a sales tax on soda drinks on Nov. 5 in Berkeley.
Campaign manager Sara Soka, center, celebrates with fellow supporters after the passing of Measure D, imposing a sales tax on soda drinks on Nov. 5 in Berkeley. The Associated Press

Legislative efforts to reduce the amount of soda people drink are so timeworn at the Capitol that the latest iteration popped up with little fanfare.

The bill, to slap warning labels on sugary drinks, reprises a measure that died in committee last year and marks Sen. Bill Monning’s third run at the issue since 2013.

Monning, D-Carmel, said, “Sometimes there’s virtue in persistence.”

But the labeling bill, introduced in February, reflects a more immediate truth about California’s soda wars: To have any chance of passage, the proposal is a more modest alternative to soda tax bills that have failed in the Legislature for decades. On that more significant front, hostilities are shifting from the Capitol to local jurisdictions.

Berkeley passed a first-in-the-nation soda tax last year, and robust support for a tax in San Francisco, though insufficient to pass, emboldened activists, who say they plan to continue the fight at the local level.

“The reason this movement is going to go on is because there is no hope at the Sacramento level,” Larry Tramutola, a strategist who worked on the Berkeley campaign, said at a political conference in that city last month. “It’s going to have to be broken at the grass-roots level, and it will be. This is a movement whose time has come.”

The Berkeley measure, which imposes a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soft drinks and other sugary drinks, comes amid growing public concern about childhood obesity and related diseases, including diabetes.

Its passage followed failed efforts in more than 30 other cities and states and served as an inspiration to soda tax advocates around the country.

“It’s a matter of time,” said Elissa Bassler, executive director of the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity, which is pushing for a soda tax in Illinois. “The momentum is just growing.”

Like proponents of soda taxes, soft-drink companies have adjusted focus to local battlegrounds as well. While the soda industry increased its lobbying efforts in Sacramento last year, including to defeat the first version of Monning’s labeling bill, the nation’s largest soft-drink companies made a relatively small impression on statewide elections.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the DrPepper Snapple Group and related beverage associations gave less than $500,000 combined to candidates and committees in statewide contests in the 2013-14 election cycle.

Meanwhile, the industry spent heavily fighting local tax measures, including more than $2 million in Berkeley and $9.2 million in San Francisco. Soda tax advocates were badly outspent in both cities, but less so in Berkeley, where former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg contributed about $647,000 to the pro-tax side.

Tramutola said soda tax efforts in the Legislature are doomed in the near future because “big soda ... has Sacramento locked up.”

It isn’t just big soda, though. Unlike in local tax campaigns, where soda companies are left to fund opposition efforts largely on their own, the soda industry has cover in Sacramento from the state’s broader pro-business and anti-tax lobby.

Including groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, opponents of a soda tax bill Monning carried in 2013 donated more than $6.6 million to candidates and committees in the 2013-14 election cycle, about 18 times the amount proponents mustered.

Lawmakers have been resistant, generally, to increasing taxes. Democrats no longer hold a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature, and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is relatively moderate. The same committee that rejected Monning’s bill in 2013 held back other tax measures, too, including those on cigarettes, strip clubs and oil extraction.

Monning said, “I think a two-thirds vote on any tax is virtually an insurmountable challenge right now.”

Lawmakers have taken action on sugary drinks and other beverage standards in previous years, including restricting soda sales in schools. But proposals to tax soda have fallen flat in the Legislature at least since 1983, usually failing to advance out of committee.

Soda companies and their allies say soda tax proposals unfairly pin concerns about obesity on one industry, and they warn of increased prices and a drag on the economy.

“We’re not saying a sugar-sweetened beverage is a health drink, but it’s something people consume,” said Bob Achermann, executive director of Calbev, the soft-drink industry’s California arm.

Likening soda to a cookie or a glass of wine, he said, “It’s a treat.”

Still, the industry feels political headwinds. Last year, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group promised to help reduce the number of calories people drink in the United States 20 percent by 2025 through a mix of marketing and promotional efforts, including emphasizing lower-calorie options, such as bottled water.

In the Bay Area last year, soda companies cast pro-tax efforts as an affront to personal choice and, playing to the high cost of living in San Francisco, told voters “the last thing we need is a tax that makes it even more expensive to live and work” there.

The companies say consumption of full-sugar drinks already is declining, as consumers turn to healthier alternatives.

But public sentiment also may be turning against soda companies’ bottom lines. Last year, a Field Poll found two-thirds of California voters support imposing a tax on soda and similar sweetened drinks, and nearly three-quarters somewhat or strongly favor labels warning of diabetes, obesity and tooth decay.

In Davis, city officials moved forward in December with a proposal that could require restaurants to offer water and milk – not soda – as standard beverages with children’s meals. In Sacramento, Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, then a city councilman, floated the idea of a soda tax in 2011.

Roger Salazar, a political strategist who worked against the tax in Berkeley, described the tax’s passage as an anomaly. Berkeley is a liberal icon in a heavily Democratic state. The city “skews extremely liberal or, excuse me, progressive,” Salazar said.

Nevertheless, soda tax activists’ success in Berkeley has reverberated around the country. Anthony Iarrapino of the Alliance for a Healthier Vermont, which is lobbying for a soda tax in that state, said “what happened in Berkeley is part of the overall atmosphere that is improving our chances for success this year.”

In Colorado, where a bid to impose a soda tax in the mountain town of Telluride failed in 2013, Emo Overall, one of the campaign’s organizers, said the public’s appetite for a soda tax “wasn’t primed enough last time.”

Now, she said, “I’m positive there’s fertile ground around the country for this. It’s just an incredibly hard fight.”

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders. Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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