Seattle’s sugary beverage tax may be intended to spur more healthful choices, but it leaves an off taste because of its approval process, other pressing needs and tax fatigue.
PEOPLE may realize health benefits by drinking fewer sugary beverages. Increasing their cost with taxes is one tool to reduce consumption.
Even so, the city of Seattle’s process in approving a tax on pop and other sugary beverages last week raises concerns.
Elected officials must be very selective about raising taxes. That’s especially true in a city where many are struggling with the rising cost of living and fatigued by the seemingly endless stream of city and regional tax increases, including city tax increases for transportation, preschool and housing.
The latest came Monday when Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Kshama Sawant proposed a 2 percent tax on income over $250,000 or $500,000 for joint filers. Unions and income-tax advocates have been looking for cities to make such a proposal, to challenge state prohibitions on such taxes, and Seattle took the bait.
Seattle officials are flirting with pushing taxpayers to a breaking point, at which they will reject taxes regardless of the merit.
Seattle should be reluctant to raise local taxes because residents are also likely to face a state property-tax increase to help pay for K-12 education. Meanwhile, Seattle and the region struggle with homelessness and an opioid epidemic.
So while the goals of the sugary beverage tax are laudable, any tax increase at this point threatens future levies.
It didn’t help that the purpose of the pop tax proposal changed as it spun through City Hall. It began last year as a public-health concept championed by Councilmember Tim Burgess, then Murray called for the tax to fund his education agenda.
Then it hit the blender of the full council. After discussions about diet pop, lattes and local artisanal sodas, the council approved the tax and called for the proceeds to also be used for nutrition programs such as food banks.
During and after deliberations, policy specifics were about as transparent as a Caramel Macchiato.
The list of programs that would receive its revenue is ambiguous, as is the range of beverages affected by the 1.75 cents per ounce tax.
In a flurry of amendments, the council created loopholes for certain local soda producers and milky beverages such as lattes and chocolate milk, though confusion lingers about the effect on Starbucks and other coffee shops.
This process and the risk that Seattle’s recent spree of taxation poses to greater needs makes its sweetened-beverage tax harder to swallow, regardless of the merits.