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Mayor wants soda tax to support early education

SANTA FE – Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales is proposing a soda tax, saying the revenue stream from taxing “sugary” drinks is needed to ensure that every young child in the city has access to education programs.

Gonzales, with support from city councilors, public education officials and a coalition of community leaders, gave a presentation at City Hall on Thursday to discuss an expansive early childhood education initiative that would require about $10 million a year to fund.

After determining that small increases in property or gross receipts taxes wouldn’t raise enough, Gonzales said, he’s calling for a 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages – that’s 24 cents on a standard 12-ounce can of soda – sold at restaurants or retail stores that would bring in an estimated $10.6 million a year. The measure, if endorsed by the City Council, would be placed on the ballot in a special election.

The early childhood education plan calls for creating 1,250 slots for children – “eventually including every 3- and 4-year-old in the city” – along with an estimated 261 jobs for teachers and staff, and says it will also reduce child care costs for parents.

City spokesman Matt Ross said the preference is to tax beverage distributors instead of directly taxing consumers, but the details still need to be ironed out as the ordinance is drafted

Gonzales said he hopes an election would take place as soon as possible. The soda tax proposal comes about three weeks after Gonzales drafted a resolution that asked city manager Brian Snyder to explore ways to encourage Santa Feans to reduce their sugar intake.

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, which supports limited government, said the mayor is overstepping his bounds. Gessing’s organization previously criticized Gonzales for his resolution on trying to reduce sugar intake in an essay titled “Hands Off My Mountain Dew, Javier.”

“We have concerns about this across the board, especially because it targets people for arbitrary activities,” Gessing said. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of micro-managing our personal life. It’s a power grab by another Santa Fe politician that thinks they know better than people that live in the city.”

Voters approved similar taxes in three San Francisco Bay-area cities and Boulder, Colo., on Tuesday, and one was also enacted this week in Cook County in Illinois, which includes Chicago.

Gonzales said Santa Fe is in dire need of education programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, especially on the lower-income southwest side of town. He said he doesn’t expect enough funding for pre-kindergarten programs to come from the state or federal governments, so the city needs to do it on its own.

The city attorney’s office has determined that Santa Fe does have the authority to impose the soda tax, Gonzales said, although the city can’t increase taxes on alcohol and tobacco. “You have to put every revenue option on the table,” Gonzales said. “We would have to do this as a community. I don’t think we have the opportunity to wait much longer.”

Gonzales said that 100 percent of the revenue generated from the soda tax would go toward education and that city government wouldn’t be able to touch it. He said the City Council would appoint members of an Early Childhood Development Commission to provide oversight, allocate funds, and award contracts to public and private providers.

The United Way of Santa Fe County has made early childhood care and education its major initiative. Gov. Susana Martinez announced earlier this year that the state was adding $3.5 million to Pre-K programs to serve an additional 534 children around the state.

City Councilor Chris Rivera, whose district covers southwest Santa Fe, said the children in his area need better facilities and better access to Pre-K programs.

“I want the kids in my district to benefit as much as the kids on the north side of town,” Rivera said. Councilors Sig Lindell and Peter Ives were also present to support the measure.

Diet drinks included

The idea is to tax distributors of beverages sweetened both naturally and artificially – that means diet drinks are included – but Gonzales said the specific types of beverages subject to the levy are still to be sorted out.

The mayor maintained that distributors typically won’t pass costs like a tax on to the consumer. He said getting people to consume less sugar is an issue separate from taxing beverages to raise money for early childhood education, although his previous resolution on reducing sugar intake did mention soda taxes.

When asked by a reporter why other sugary products, like candy and baked goods, wouldn’t be taxed, as well, Gonzales said it was all about finding a new revenue source. But UCLA professor Jeannie Oakes, identified as Gonzales’ early childhood policy advisor, chimed in and implied that it was also about punishing beverage companies.

“The soda industry has been very aggressive in the last 20 years,” she said. “They make it seem like sugary beverages are OK. Santa Fe has the opportunity to right some wrongs.”

The “return on investment” from the tax-supported spending will be improved lives and futures for children, with higher education attainment, better wages and better health outcomes, says a summary of the plan. A wide-ranging “working group” including representatives of local charities and foundations, medical organizations, clergy and Santa Fe Community College worked on the plan.

Gonzales said he doesn’t expect everyone to agree with the proposed ordinance, but he still hopes a majority of voters approve it.

“Anytime you ask for change, you’re going to have people that will fight you,” Gonzales said. “I’m banking on the city of Santa Fe to say ‘yes’ (to the ordinance).”

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