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Soda tax journey may be tough

Get ready to rumble.

With the mayor and City Council deciding late Wednesday night to put a soda tax before Santa Fe voters in a special election on May 2, we probably should get ready for a campaign like the City Different has never seen.

The 2-cent-per-ounce tax on soft drinks (not including diet versions), along with sugary energy and coffee drinks, and other kinds of sweetened beverages, would fund Mayor Javier Gonzales’ plan that’s supposed to make free or affordable pre-kindergarten education available to children from every family that wants it.

Almost certainly, there will be a lot of money spent trying to persuade Santa Feans to vote for or against the plan. Soda taxes have become a flashpoint around the country — see the major fight over a soft drink tax and subsequent Pepsi layoffs in Philadelphia. The beverage industry isn’t likely to let Santa Fe become the next domino to fall without a well-financed fight.

And it won’t be surprising if progressive groups, from New Mexico and beyond, weigh in with heavy support for the soda-tax-for-pre-K effort.

There already has been sparring. Both Pre-K for Santa Fe, the PAC supporting the mayor’s plan, and Better Way for Santa Fe — which includes beverage industry groups, local restaurants and the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce — already sent out mailers that tried to influence the council before Wednesday night’s approval of the special tax election.

The mailers were tame by political standards. Upon further review, none of the fliers contains blatantly false information, just strong arguments and opinion.

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But supporters of the soda tax bemoaned mailers they saw as coming from an evil “Big Soda” cabal. Councilor Ron Trujillo, who opposes the soda tax, complained about a black-and-white (of course) photo of him used in a mailer from pre-K supporters — in his words, he looked like he just got out of la pinta, the penitentiary. He maintained he’d been depicted as an “angry Hispanic man who hates children.”

We should all brace for a lot worse as this campaign moves forward.

It may be too late in the game to believe Santa Fe’s old ways of discourse without the odor of professional politics, scripted talking points and big-time campaign consultants can return. But at least the locals involved should try to maintain some ethical standards.

That’s important because this could be tough couple of months. The more than 100 speakers who beseeched the City Council with pleas for and against the mayor’s plan appeared to show something of a divide — there was more of an Anglo tinge to supporters of the plan and the opposition seemed more local Hispanic, although that distinction certainly was not absolute.

Let’s hope this doesn’t go too far. For instance, we just hope no one tries to portray Trujillo — an embodiment of Santa Fe tradition whose affable foresight brought us the hapless, but entertaining, Fuego baseball team — as somehow a pawn of “Big Soda.” That’s the kind of thing that he, and the rest of us, should really get angry about.

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