Editorials

Big Soda’s sweet deal to ban soda taxes is a California shakedown

Soft drink and soda bottles are displayed in a refrigerator at El Ahorro market in San Francisco. In the wake of a rash of local soda taxes passed by Bay Area cities, the beverage lobby has pushed an initiative in California to raise the threshold for all local tax increases, alarming local governments. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
Soft drink and soda bottles are displayed in a refrigerator at El Ahorro market in San Francisco. In the wake of a rash of local soda taxes passed by Bay Area cities, the beverage lobby has pushed an initiative in California to raise the threshold for all local tax increases, alarming local governments. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File) AP

If you haven’t stopped drinking sugary soda already, now would be a great time to not give another cent to the beverage companies.

Talk about a shakedown.

As reported Sunday by The Sacramento Bee’s Alexei Koseff, a power play by the American Beverage Association – the one we warned you about in April – appears to be working as intended. As the deadline for signing the state budget approaches this week, a developing trailer bill attached to it would give Big Soda a 12-year ban on local soda taxes in exchange for dropping a ballot initiative that would threaten the finances of cities throughout California. Who says extortion doesn’t pay?

Alarmed by local sales tax hikes on sugary drinks in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, the beverage industry this year threw its weight – and about $7 million – behind a November ballot initiative that would dramatically raise the threshold for local tax measures. That in turn has alarmed local governments, including the city of Sacramento.

Compromise is an art, we suppose, and Big Soda’s sweet deal is probably worth the trouble its initiative would otherwise cause cities. But make no mistake: This preempts a public good to line an industry’s pockets.

The beverage industry initiative, which appears on track to qualify for the ballot, would ask voters to require a two-thirds supermajority for approval for any new local tax, tax increase or tax extension. If voters approve, the proposed constitutional amendment would be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018, wiping out any local tax approved this year with less than a two-thirds majority.

That means revenue for all sorts of local needs would go by the wayside in California, just so the beverage industry can get a reprieve from pesky public health efforts to limit the obesity, tooth decay and other ills linked to sugary soda. Locally, it would badly complicate the proposed extension of Sacramento’s Measure U sales tax, which Mayor Darrell Steinberg wants to increase by a half-cent. A City Council committee is to start debate Tuesday on that November ballot measure.

Certainly no one who cares about local control wants cities to be hamstrung. If the soda initiative passes and Measure U is approved with less than two-thirds of the vote, Sacramento could face deep cuts to police and fire services, and low-income parts of the city would have to forget the much-needed investments in neighborhoods, housing and jobs that have been so eagerly discussed since the Stephon Clark shooting.

Other cities, straining to cover the cost of union-negotiated benefits for public employees, have similar pressing issues and commitments to their workers. The League of California Cities is fighting the initiative, and in recent weeks, Service Employees International Union California has been campaigning against the signature gathering effort.

So Senate Bill 872 offers an out, ending the need for an initiative by prohibiting new local taxes on “carbonated and noncarbonated nonalcoholic beverages” and other “groceries” until the end of 2030. But what a sad trade-off: Some of the most insidious health impacts from drinking too many sugary sodas are among low-income children, the same children who would benefit from, say, Measure U-funded programs in the Meadowview neighborhood where Clark lived.

Compromise is an art, we suppose, and Big Soda’s sweet deal is probably worth the trouble its initiative would otherwise cause cities. But make no mistake: This preempts a public good to line an industry’s pockets.

That’s why Californians should also vote with their wallets. Buy less soda. We shouldn’t have to pay with poor health and rotten teeth for good government jobs and safe neighborhoods.

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