This week’s Seattle City Hall drama over soda-tax revenue raises a critical question: How is the money being spent?
Nobody quite yet knows, according to co-chairs of the 11-member Sweetened Beverage Tax Community Advisory Board, although they hope to soon find out.
The community board has long advocated fencing off soda-tax revenues to ensure the money is not diverted to other programs. They’ve also called for significantly greater transparency. Stakeholders have been “loud and clear” in discussions with board members that they want to know, not only how the money has been allocated, but also how it is being spent, said co-chair Christina Wong, director of public policy and advocacy at Northwest Harvest.
In April, the advisory board asked the City Budget Office for detailed reports of sweetened-beverage tax revenues, allocations and expenditures, including breakouts of city administration costs, money spent on contracts with community-based organizations and direct benefits to Seattle residents. The board hopes to receive that information and issue a report within the next couple of weeks, says co-chair Jim Krieger, a clinical professor of medicine and health services at the University of Washington and executive director of Healthy Food America. The board has also asked the city for goals and performance data from funded programs and services to inform its recommendations for 2021. The city should hasten to honor the board’s request.
The long-simmering drama over soda-tax revenue reached a boiling point this week, with Seattle City Council members voting 7-1 to earmark each dollar collected for food access and early-childhood programs, and Mayor Jenny Durkan vowing to veto the move. But the more important question is how Seattle’s soda tax will achieve its intended purpose: To reduce consumption of unhealthy sugary drinks while increasing access and consumption of healthier foods.
It is especially important that dollars are directed to efficient, effective and outcomes-focused efforts with the greatest chance of encouraging healthy behaviors without requiring forever funding. To that end, the advisory board has recommended greater investment in community-led approaches, in one-time infrastructure such as water bottle filling stations and kitchen facilities, and public awareness campaigns.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the $22 million in revenues would become the focus of a tug of war, but Seattle’s soda tax is unlike other funding sources: If it is working, revenues should shrink. Maybe not all at once; maybe never to $0, but significantly enough.