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Editorial: Too hard to swallow

Santa Fe voters turned out in record numbers Tuesday and soundly defeated a proposed 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary soft drinks that Mayor Javier Gonzales hoped would put an extra 1,000 kids in pre-kindergarten classes for free or at cut-rate prices.

While the proposal might have sounded good on its face – fight obesity and get more kids into early education – 58 percent of those who voted didn’t drink that Kool-Aid. And an impressive 37.6 percent of registered voters turned out to vote.

Had the soda tax passed, Santa Fe would have matched Boulder, Colo., as having the highest such tax in the nation. In Santa Fe’s case, it was estimated that it would raise about $10.6 million a year for early childhood education – and added $1.44 to the cost of a six pack and nearly $22 to a canister of lemonade mix.

This was a hotly debated contest, pitting lower-income Hispanic residents who rejected the tax against high-end neighborhoods that favored it, though not on Election Day. It was fueled by a jaw-dropping $3.3 million spent nearly equally by supporters and opponents. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who banned the sale of large sugary drinks when he was mayor of New York City (and was then reversed by that state’s highest court), sank more than $1 million into the pro-tax effort here. He also spent $1.6 million to help get a similar tax passed in Philadelphia and $18 million to get ones passed in San Francisco and Oakland.

And because a successful campaign in Santa Fe was likely to fuel initiatives across New Mexico, we’re glad the initiative failed.

As the Journal has noted before, there’s ample research showing any educational gains youngsters make in pre-K virtually disappear by third grade, though other research indicates pre-K students are likely to have higher incomes and not turn to crime later in life.

There was little assurance Santa Fe’s expanded pre-K program would be well vetted and monitored. Mayor Gonzales promised the program would be staffed by highly trained and licensed people with high-quality credentials and services. But those are the same adjectives used every year to try to justify a raid on the Land Grant Permanent Fund to fund early childhood “education,” sans any supporting qualifications or accountability measures.

There’s no question New Mexico, like every other state, has a serious problem with obesity and diabetes. But it’s debatable whether a soda tax would drastically change people’s behavior in the long run. And there’s little doubt many soda/juice/energy-drinking Santa Feans would simply drive outside the city limits to other municipalities to load up on their favorite sugary drinks – which would have cut into that $10 million anticipated for pre-K.

Soda taxes are regressive: Shoppers with low incomes who buy a soft drink pay a bigger portion of their income as a tax than people with high incomes. Or they buy more gasoline to travel farther to avoid the tax on their soda. It is interesting that the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, which routinely uses the anti-regressive argument to battle any reinstatement of the food tax – even though that would reduce the overall gross receipts tax rate New Mexicans pay – gave its blessing to the soda tax.

Perhaps the Archdiocese, which also routinely advocates for a raid on the Land Grant Permanent Fund under the vague promise of high-quality early childhood education, would like to sacrifice its tax-exempt status to further its pet cause.

Meanwhile, back where people pay taxes, soda taxes are bad for business. The Associated Press reported that, less than three months after Philadelphia adopted a 1.5-cent-per-ounce soda tax, PepsiCo reported a 40 percent drop in sales from a year earlier, then laid off nearly 100 workers. Employees of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Santa Fe voiced similar concerns during the recent campaign. You can’t run a business trying to sell what people won’t pay extra for.

It’s as clear as 7Up that the status of education in New Mexico is dismal. The state consistently ranks near the bottom on lists comparing educational success. So, naturally, leaders look, sometimes desperately, for ways to improve.

But the Santa Fe soda tax proposal was as heavy on promises as an oversized can of sweetened tea and as light on specifics as the water everyone should be drinking more of. The majority of Santa Fe voters who turned out Tuesday weighed the arguments and understood – as the rest of New Mexico should – that the soda tax would not deliver as advertised.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.