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Mayor’s soda tax for Pre-K draws questions from council committee

SANTA FE — Members of the City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday offered more than a couple of teaspoons of skepticism to a proposal from Mayor Javier Gonzales to impose a 2-cent per ounce tax on sodas and other sugary drinks to finance early childhood development programs.

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The soda tax proposed by Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales and others would apply to diet drinks as well as sugared ones. (Journal file)

The mayor announced his proposal last week and said that city estimates the tax would generate $10.6 million per year to fund Pre-K programs. He wants the tax to be presented to voters at a special election.

After hearing from several members of Gonzales’ Santa Fe Early Childhood Initiative Working Group about the benefits of the proposal, no one on Finance Committee questioned the virtues of early childhood education.

But some councilors had questions about how the money would be distributed, whether revenue estimates were accurate, and if the city even had the authority to impose the tax.

Boulder, Colo., a city slightly larger than Santa Fe where voters last week approved a 2-cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks, estimated its revenues would be only about $3.8 million per year. Voters in three San Francisco Bay-area cities, and Cook County in Illinois, which includes Chicago, also recently approved soda taxes.

A fact sheet provided Monday says Boulder’s tax doesn’t apply to diet drinks, as the Santa Fe proposal would, and that Santa Fe has more tourists than Boulder.

Councilor Michael Harris called the mayor’s plan “another aspirational goal” he wasn’t sure the city should be taking on. He said the city was still has “trust issues” with the public after an audit found it was unclear precisely how $2 million of a $30.3 million parks bond approved by voters in 2008 was spent. He also wondered why Santa Fe Public Schools wasn’t taking the lead on the initiative.

Councilor Renee Villarreal said it was unfortunate that the state hasn’t done more for early childhood development, that the school district should be involved and that early childhood development should be part of the schools’ “strategy.”  She also said she had many questions about the proposal’s “mechanics” and wondered what the cost of a special election would be.

Carmichael Dominguez, the committee chair, said his biggest concerns were whether the city even had the authority to impose the tax and about governance of the funding program, such as how will the money would be distributed.  “I want to know more about how this money will be used,” he said.

Councilor Signe Lindell said funding early childhood development through a soda tax appealed to her, but she wondered whether the estimate that the tax would raise more than $10 million per year might be overly optimistic. “I would hate to see us say $10 million and only get $8 million over three years,” she said. “It’s implementation has to be flawless.”

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