SANTA FE — Voters in the city of Santa Fe will decide whether to impose a 2-cent-per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to fund early childhood education programs at a special election on May 2.
The vote of the councilors and Mayor Javier Gonzales to put the measure on the ballot was 8-1, with Councilor Ron Trujillo casting the lone no vote. Gonzales has been the prime sponsor of the plan.
The vote came shortly before midnight after more than 100 people spoke during a public hearing that lasted more than 2 hours.
Most speakers supported Gonzales’ tax-for-pre-K plan as crucial to improving education outcomes, expanding schooling opportunities for low-income families and discouraging sugar intake as a health benefit.
But many employees of the local Coca-Cola distributor and others not associated with the company said the tax could mean job losses and questioned why only certain groups of consumers or businesses should carry the burden of financing a community pre-K program.
Gonzales, before casting his vote, said state government hasn’t stepped up to fund early childhood education and it was time to put the issue before voters in Santa Fe.
He said the proposal, intended to make 1,000 pre-K slots available for free or at affordable rates based on income, is “on the right side of history.” Trujillo argued that the program was an overreach into an area that should be state responsibility and would hurt businesses.
During the long public hearing, Beth Beloff, a commissioner with the Sustainable Santa Fe Commission, said that 85 percent of a child’s brain is developed by age 5. Rejecting the proposal or putting off an election until the March 2018 municipal election — an idea that had been floated by Councilor Joseph Maestas — would hurt the children who would be eligible for early childhood programs sooner, she said.
“We can’t afford to wait another year to support today’s children,” she said.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia said that as a society, “I think we’re all beneficiaries” of such a plan. She said studies show the best economic driver is investment in early childhood education.
Edward Stein said the decision to impose the tax should be given to the people. “Voting against (calling an election on the tax) this is totally undemocratic,” he said. “People get a say. Do the right thing.”
On the other side, Vince Gallegos, with his daughter by his side, noted that he’d heard a tax supporter say he never drinks soda. “If you’re for a tax that your not going to contribute to, isn’t that a little hypocritical?,” Gallegos asked. “If we’re going to have a tax to support education, everybody should pay it. If you’re not going to pay it, you shouldn’t be in favor of it.”
Ginger Griego de Olivares, a local artist, complained about tax supporters “shaming” people who drink sodas and said they overstate sugar’s impact. “What I put in my mouth is my business,” she said, adding that tax supporters shouldn’t “scare people” by saying children “will go to jail or be on drugs because they have sodas.”
Numerous Coca-Cola employees spoke to say the tax could cost them their jobs, and they and others listed numerous programs — 4-H, local rodeos and fairs and high school sports programs — that the 98-year-old company has supported with donations over the years.
Barry Kiess, CEO of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Santa Fe, said the tax — which would apply to surgary coffee and energy drinks and other sweetened beverages as well as soda — is not sustainable. He said it’s not true that his business can absorb the extra cost. “We work on very small margins and will be forced to pass on 100 percent of this tax,” Kiess said.