Seeking to stop a pending deal that would ban local soda taxes in California for more than a decade, the head of the American Heart Association on Wednesday invited Gov. Jerry Brown to "meet in a sunshine-filled restaurant in your beautiful state" to discuss the "negative health impacts" of sugary drinks.
"Let's have dinner together," Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, wrote in an open letter to the governor posted on Twitter. The deal "would be a significant step backward for California and the nation. This bill will reach your desk in the next day or two and I urge you to call me before taking action."
The Sacramento Bee reported Tuesday that Gov. Brown met with lobbyists and other representatives from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the beverage industry for a private dinner at the governor's mansion earlier this month.
Weeks later, the industry negotiated a bill with organized labor that would prohibit California cities and counties from creating new taxes on "groceries" through 2030 – part of a broader bargain to pull from the November ballot a soda company-backed initiative that would make it harder to raise state and local taxes.
Both the governor and the American Beverage Association said the dinner had nothing to do with the proposed soda tax ban, though they declined to answer questions about what they discussed. But public health advocates, who have successfully pushed for taxes on sugary drinks in a small but growing number of California cities, decried the meeting as evidence of soda companies' undue influence at the Capitol and the proposed ban as a "sweetheart deal" to protect their profits.
"I'd like to have the same opportunity to discuss our side of the story," Nancy Brown wrote in her letter. "These companies profit from sugary drinks – the leading source of added sugar in the American diet – and they spend millions of dollars marketing them to California kids."
"Let's talk about steps we can take to prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes and hypertension in California," she added. "In fact, 21.9 million Californians are expected to have heart disease, hypertension, diabetes or obesity-related cancer by 2030. We can’t wait 12 years to prevent some of that from happening."
In an email, Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Gov. Brown, did not say whether the governor would accept the invitation.
"As you know the governor has not taken a position on this measure, the deal was not negotiated by the governor and the dinner you continue to reference was not related," he wrote. "Your readers would know all of that had the Bee not buried these comments in its last piece."
The local soda tax ban, now moving forward as Assembly Bill 1838, is expected to pass both houses of the Legislature and head to Gov. Brown's desk before a Thursday deadline for proponents to pull their tax initiative from the ballot.
The deal has received muted support from lawmakers who say it is better than the alternative: an expensive fight over a measure to raise the threshold for all new taxes and tax increases to two-thirds, which opponents believe would devastate the budgets of local communities.
"This legislative solution prevents big beverage companies from buying an initiative that would benefit their industry at the expense of local police, fire departments, and libraries in communities throughout California," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said in a statement.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins declined to comment on the bill. But it passed its first hurdle Tuesday, with Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee providing a bare number of votes for the measure to advance.
"I'm going to support the bill today, recognizing, as chair of the budget committee for the Senate, the fiscal ramifications for the state," Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said. "I hope that, at some point, when we get beyond this political Sophie's choice that we find ourselves in, that we really can have a meaningful conversation about health disparities across the state."