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Santa Fe committee endorses mayor’s soda tax/pre-K proposal

SANTA FE – The controversial proposal to place a 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in Santa Fe to fund pre-K schooling got its first official  endorsement from a city committee on Wednesday.

The advisory Business and and Quality of Life Committee signed off on the soda tax, which provide money for Mayor Javier Gonzales’ plan to make early childhood education available to every three- and four-year-old in Santa Fe, over opposition from business owners.

Later in the day, the City Council voted to publish notice of a public hearing on the tax and pre-K plan on March 8.

Mayor Javier Gonzales

Mayor Javier Gonzales

The March hearing won’t be the first time community members will have a chance to add their two cents, so to speak, on the issue, and it may not be the last. If the council approves the proposal after the March hearing, it will be up to voters to decide at a special election — likely in May — whether to impose the tax that is intended to help fund early childhood education programs in the city to the tune of $7.2 million per year.

Gonzales told the Business and Quality of Life Committee there is an urgent need to help the 20 percent of the city’s population that lives in poverty and the 30 percent of children who go to bed hungry. “This proposal is about this community standing up and saying that’s not right,” he said, before highlighting the benefits of early education programs.

Gonzales said there are about 1,000 children ages 3 and 4 in the city who are eligible for early childhood education programs, but their families either can’t afford to pay $900 to $1,400 per month to put them in a pre-kindergarten program, or they can’t get them enrolled because existing programs are at capacity.

Some who spoke at the meeting argued that a tax on soda and other sugared drinks would hurt low-income families the most. And while the tax would be imposed on distributors of the drinks, business people said the tax targets small businesses who would have to increase prices. They urged the city to find another way to fund the pre-K program.

“I know what this will do to my menu,” said Matthew Adkins, of Tecolote Cafe. “To me, this is about dollars and cents.”

Tate Mruz of Boxcar, a restaurant/bar in the Railyard district, said he gives away most of the soda products to staff and designated drivers, so the increase in price will hit his business hard. “It’s not so simple as two cents on every ounce. We need to take a step back and evaluate this,” he said.

Barry Kiess, CEO of the Coca-Cola distributor in Santa Fe, held up a two-liter bottle of Coke often found on sale for about a dollar and told the group the tax would more than double the price.

Kate Kennedy, a member of the committee and a partner in the downtown nightclub Skylight, said the tax would likely cost her business between $20,000 and $30,000 per year. But she abstained from the vote.

Kate Kennedy

Kate Kennedy

In the 6-1 committee vote, Holly Bradshaw Eakes cast the only “no” vote. She said she felt a disconnect in that, to support the initiative, one would have to buy unhealthy sugary drinks. “You’re almost there,” she told the mayor. “We need to find a wider base for how to pay for this.”