The City Council passed a law Monday to reserve all money from Seattle’s soda tax in a special fund, defying vehement opposition by Mayor Jenny Durkan who intends to issue a rare veto of a measure she says will necessitate funding cuts.
Six council votes at a subsequent meeting are needed to override a veto. Monday’s vote was 7-1, with only Councilmember Abel Pacheco opposing the action. Councilmember Debora Juarez was absent.
Disagreement over how to allocate the money from the 1.75 cents-per-ounce tax on the distribution of sugar-sweetened beverages has led to an unusually open power struggle between Seattle’s branches of government.
The council’s new law ensures the soda-tax revenue will be spent only to add and expand healthful-food, education and early-childhood programs, separate from whatever baseline money such programs may receive from the city’s general fund.
The beverage tax raised $22 million in 2018, much more than expected. When Durkan drew up this year’s budget, she used about $6 million in proceeds from the tax to support the general fund, which pays for everything from cops to homeless services. The council reluctantly agreed to the arrangement at the time, and the mayor would like to maintain it next year.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who championed Monday’s measure, said he wants to protect the idea behind the tax, which is supposed to reduce soda consumption by making sugary drinks more pricey and by funding programs that encourage healthful living in low-income communities and communities of color. Those communities are targeted by soda marketing and are bearing the brunt of the tax, he said.
When the tax passed back in 2017, the council included language specifying how the money would be used but didn’t create a distinct fund.
“My goal here is to commit to the original intent,” O’Brien said.
The mayor has vigorously spoken out against Monday’s move, arguing the council’s law will open up a hole as her administration builds next year’s budget.
Seattle used soda-tax revenue this year to cover $6 million previously paid by the general fund in allocations to healthful food and early-learning needs, such as food banks and parent-child programs. That freed up general-fund money to use in other areas, such as homeless services. The council is now tying Durkan’s hands without telling her where to cut, she says.
“I am disappointed,” the mayor said in a statement. “Because the council has refused to … put forward a balanced plan, I will veto this bill.”
The amount of money at stake is modest in the context of the $1 billion-plus allocated annually from the general fund, and the debate isn’t new. Council members raised concerns about Durkan’s maneuver last year, though they didn’t immediately undo it because they didn’t want to make cuts elsewhere.
But the clash escalated this month when the Durkan administration warned some nonprofits the law could result in funding cuts, and when the mayor issued a news release slamming the law as an “irresponsible step.”
Some council members and community leaders responded by accusing Durkan of trying to bully nonprofits into siding with her by threatening to cut their programs. She should be able to figure out how to avoid that, they say.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda spoke Monday against a “manufactured crisis,” Councilmember Sally Bagshaw expressed concern about what she described as “vituperative dialogue” and O’Brien called the mayor’s release an “awful stunt to pull.”
Tanika Thompson from the nonprofit Got Green said Durkan had employed “scare tactics,” while Violet Lavatai from the Tenants Union of Washington State said the mayor is trying to pit communities against each other. Coalitions of food banks and human-services providers wrote letters ahead of the meeting lending their support for the council’s law.
Practically speaking, the law puts the onus on the mayor to deal with any gap in the city’s budget. If Durkan proposes cuts to human services in September, council members will seek to restore that funding by making trims elsewhere, they said.
What the council wants to do with the soda-tax proceeds is commendable but Seattle’s resources “aren’t infinite,” said Durkan’s budget director, Ben Noble.
Noble doesn’t expect the city to collected more overall revenue than anticipated in 2019, he said.
Some disconcerted nonprofit leaders showed up at the council meeting to request that their funding not be cut due to a political battle.
A representative from United Way of King County expressed anxiety about a lack of certainty moving ahead, and a group of older adults led by the Chinatown International District-based Seniors in Action Foundation held signs opposing food-bank cuts.
“We’re very worried,” Susan Yang, executive director of the Denise Louie Education Center, told the council. “We don’t want to be part of the fight.”
During a public-comment period, many other nonprofit leaders urged the council to pass the law protecting the soda-tax money and then ensure all programs remain funded.
Victor Coleman, director of the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition, asked the council to “rebuild trust” and “make everyone whole.”