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Debate over soft drink tax bubbles up

SANTA FE, N.M. — The politics surrounding Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales’ proposal for an ambitious pre-kindergarten education program financed with a soda tax exploded this week and even took on personal overtones.

Two city councilors – Joe Maestas and Ron Trujillo – have called for pushing back the date for a possible election on the tax on sugary beverages, part of a fight that is playing out at City Hall, on social media and via a political action committee’s press release.

Gonzales complained about an attack on his cousin and got an apology from Trujillo, published on Facebook. Meanwhile, both Maestas and Trujillo were criticized by a PAC supporting the mayor’s plan, and Maestas fired back on Twitter.

The PAC maintains delaying implementation of Gonzales’ effort to make pre-K accessible for every three- or four-year-old in Santa Fe would cost the city millions in terms of new jobs and the long-term benefits of having better educated children.

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Wednesday night, when the City Council’s main order of business was a resolution re-affirming Santa Fe’s immigrant-friendly policies in the face of presidential threats to cut federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities, the mayor and councilors found time for a fiery exchange over the soda tax.

Mayor Javier Gonzales

Mayor Javier Gonzales

Gonzales attacked the very idea of a new Maestas resolution, which is supported by Trujillo, to postpone putting the tax before voters until the next City Council elections in March 2018. The mayor wants the council to call a special election, at a cost estimated at $70,000 or $80,000, for as soon as May.

Gonzales said he was “incredibly disappointed” that Maestas brought forth his postponement proposal now, “toward the end of a very long process in our community.” The mayor first announced the soda-tax-for-pre-K plan on Nov. 9, about 3½ months ago, although there was considerable planning behind the scenes before that.

He called Maestas’ resolution confusing, disingenuous and an “end-run process.” Gonzales said Maestas and Trujillo could just vote against the planned tax and pre-K-for-all program – scheduled for a public hearing and possible council action on March 8 – instead of suggesting a delay in the tax election.

“I want to state for the record that I’m disappointed in that, but we will nevertheless continue to go forward,” the mayor said.

Councilor Joe Maestas

Councilor Joe Maestas

Maestas responded that he didn’t expect Gonzales’ “comments to be so pointed for just introducing legislation.” He said he supports pre-K, but wants more time for debate and that the mayor had not communicated sufficiently toward “getting us all on the same level of understanding” about his plan. He said many necessary actions, like getting a legal opinion on the city’s authority to impose the beverage tax, haven’t taken place yet.

He urged working together, but added, “You and I met one time, mayor, and you asked me to support it and I haven’t seen a thing.”

Family matters

Gonzales also complained that Councilor Trujillo had brought the mayor’s family into the tax debate. He said Trujillo had “called out” a cousin of the mayor, referring to one of the owners of Patrick’s Fine Sodas, a local startup that is producing low-sugar beverages. Gonzales said he and Trujillo have previously been able to discuss differences without “trying to bring in family members.”

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This dispute stems from an amendment that Gonzales introduced at Monday’s meeting of the council’s Public Works Committee that would exempt from the sugary drinks tax any beverages with less than 5 grams of sugar per 12 ounces. Representatives of Patrick’s Fine Sodas, including Gonzales’ cousin, were at the meeting and said the company’s drinks have less than 5 grams of sugar, but that they still opposed the soda tax. Trujillo voted against the committee’s endorsement of the mayor’s plan.

Councilor Ron Trujillo

Councilor Ron Trujillo

On Tuesday, Trujillo posted a long statement on Facebook critical of the tax and what he said are administrative costs in the pre-K plan that would deflect funds away from educating children. The tax plan also is “business unfriendly,” Trujillo wrote, before adding a section suggesting that the low-sugar exemption inserted by Gonzales was a sweetheart deal for Patrick’s Fine Sodas. “How convenient that now this distributor is now exempt,” wrote Trujillo.

City Hall spokesman Matt Ross said Thursday the exemption for low-sugar drinks conforms to other soda tax plans in cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, Albany, N.Y., and Boulder, Colo. The intent is to focus the tax on high-sugar, low-nutrient beverages, said Ross.

Trujllo said in an interview Thursday that he had made a wrong assumption when posting his comments about the exemption. But he also said there had been “no conversation dealing with these issues” before the Monday committee meeting. Trujillo said his main objection to the tax is that it will hurt small businesses. “These are family businesses in Santa Fe, these are real people,” he said, adding, “When we start setting taxes like this, it divides the community.”

Trujillo later put up a new Facebook treatise apologizing for the prior post. “I now realize there was never any intent to amend this tax to benefit his (the mayor’s) cousin and know that she has been treated like a regular constituent regarding this issue.” He said he had “deeply offended members of this family” and that he was grateful “for them being part of this community and starting their business to (help) this city to prosper.”

He added: “Anyone that knows me knows that I will stand up for the locals here in Santa Fe to ensure a better way of life for them.”

PACs enter fray

Pre-K for Santa Fe, a group supporting Gonzales’ plan that has registered as a “political committee organization” with the City Clerk’s Office, issued a news release Thursday blasting Trujillo and Maestas for the resolution that would delay the tax election.

The two councilors “have just placed an enormous obstacle in the middle of the road to success for a thousand Santa Fe children,” said Sandra Wechsler, the group’s spokeswoman, in the release, referring to the number of pre-K slots Gonzales’ plan hopes to make accessible to three- and four-year-olds with the $7 million program.

“By proposing a one-year delay, these two councilors are telling a thousand kids and their parents ‘you can’t have the opportunity that others have.'”

Maestas responded on Twitter, referring to Wechsler, who has worked on many political campaigns and describes herself on her LinkedIn page as “a strategy consultant who believes deeply in social change as a strategy for competitive advantage.” Maestas tweeted: “Why is a paid consultant for the undeveloped soda tax against more community input?”

Pre-K for Santa Fe attached a two-page report that says if the pre-K program is delayed for another fiscal year, the Santa Fe community would lose more than $9 million in “immediate, medium-term and long-term financial benefits.” Those benefits include the jobs created for those providing early childhood education services; more employment for parents who can put their children in pre-K; and costs that state and national studies have attributed to having fewer children in special ed classes, higher student test scores in elementary school, decreases in the number of students who are retained a grade, and lower juvenile and adult crime and incarceration rates over the years.

Opponents of the tax, including the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, the local Coca-Cola bottling company, the American Beverage Association, the state beverage association and the Greater Santa Fe Restaurant Association, also have registered a PAC. It’s called Better Way for Santa Fe and Pre-K.

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