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Soda tax needs specifics

SANTA FE, N.M. — t sounds like a sweet deal: Charge a tax on sugary soft drinks and pour the money raised into early education programs that could help boost children’s chances for success in today’s world.

That’s the proposal from Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales and supporters, who want to levy 2 cents per ounce – 24 cents on a standard 12-ounce can of Coke and its ilk, including other sugar-added beverages and artificially sweetened sodas – and use the estimated $10.6 million raised annually to expand pre-kindergarten programs in the city.

It’s an intriguing idea, but one that needs a lot more research and detail. For instance, we wouldn’t want to see a pot of money that suddenly everyone with a few alphabet blocks and Legos would try to grab. Reassuringly, Gonzales’ advisor on the matter has stressed that the programs funded through this tax would involve highly trained and licensed people with quality credentials and services. But we want to know how that would be guaranteed.

Others also have questioned why the school district isn’t more involved. Shouldn’t those officials, and not the city, be overseeing our children’s education?

Also, any time a new pot of money appears, it’s tempting to use a little financial sleight of hand to drain off a little here, add a little more there, until the revenues from the imposed tax don’t go quite where they were promised to end up. Santa Feans felt somewhat stung when spending from a recent parks bond issue didn’t appear to completely end up in the capital improvements originally described.

We do like the idea that any sugar tax would be decided by the voters, but voters would need to have faith in its intended use. Maybe Santa Fe needs to engineer a “lock box” like one-time Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore said he wanted for Social Security. As Councilor Signe Lindell said during a committee hearing, “Its implementation has to be flawless.”

Rather than rush the proposal to the voters, though, and then figure out the details afterward, voters deserve a closer look at some of the details so they can make an educated choice if this tax goes to the ballot. The ballot proposal can’t be one of those standard one-sentence deals that just asks if voters support a soda tax for Pre-K. There needs to be detail that guarantees tax revenue goes for the stated purpose and serious programs.

Skeptics have suggested a $10.6 million pot of money from the tax seems inflated. If that amount isn’t raised, what would happen next? A higher tax? Expanded definitions of what items will be taxed? Would the city have to back off its promises on the number of children (1,250 is the stated goal, to cover every 3- or 4-year-old in Santa Fe) served by the pre-K programs?

We should note, in a city that touts itself as progressive, that this tax is a regressive one. In other words, people with low incomes who buy a soft drink will pay a bigger portion of their income as a tax than people with high incomes.

While Gonzales isn’t touting the health benefits of reducing sugar consumption in his proposal, such considerations are implicit in it and even in prior, related legislation submitted by the mayor. After all, he’s not seeking extra taxes on milk, coffee or naturally sweet beverages such as fruit juices (although sugar in those juices can be just as harmful as added sugar in other drinks). Pastrami, cheeseburgers, bacon, birthday cakes and milkshakes would escape the levy.

Health studies are pretty convincing at this point that we’d be a lot healthier if we ate less sugar, but studies of the effects of a tax on sugared drinks are less clear. A recent study, for example, showed that soda sales fell 12 percent by the end of 2014 in Mexico, the year in which that country imposed a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks.

Estimates of the health savings from such a reduction, however, don’t explore whether people developed new behaviors to offset the benefits of drinking less soda. Maybe they added sugar to other beverages. Or gorged on more candy and cupcakes. After all, sources of empty calories abound in our world today.

For now, we think more care needs to be taken in both examining research of pluses and minuses of such a tax, and in providing details of how the city would spend the revenues raised.

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