Battle lines are set in coming soda tax election

Game on.

Pro-soda tax – or pro-early childhood education, if you will – supporters won the first round Wednesday when the Santa Fe City Council voted 8-1 in favor of holding a special election to let voters decide whether to impose a 2-cent-per-ounce tax on distributors who sell sugar-sweetened beverages to local stores and restaurants. The tax, estimated to generate more than $7 million annually, is projected to fund 1,000 slots in early childhood education programs in the city.

But the next battle will be getting voters to approve the tax at a special election May 2, and it figures to be a brawl.

“I believe it will be a fight, and a big fight,” said Sandra Wechsler, a spokeswoman for Pre-K for Santa Fe, a political action committee backing the tax.

Wechsler said that, in other places around the country where cities and counties have proposed taxing sugary drinks, the American Beverage Association has come in and spent big money in opposition, “and we believe that will happen here.”

Wechsler says she expects her group to be out-spent 10-1 and called it “a real David versus Goliath fight.” She called her group’s work a grassroots effort, emphasizing that in the battle with what many tax supporters call “Big Soda,” Pre-K for Santa Fe has 250 volunteers who will knock on doors in the next eight weeks, more than 100 local businesses and 50 organizations supporting it, and 3,000 people who have signed a petition in support.

The American Beverage Association is already involved. It and the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce and local restaurants are a part of a coalition that formed Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K, which last week distributed a glossy mailer and has been running radio advertisements opposing the tax.

“Pre-K education is a priority for our city, but there’s no need to fund it with a new, massive tax that raises prices on hundreds of beverages, hurts Santa Fe small businesses and costs people their jobs,” Better Way said in a press release minutes after the City Council’s midnight vote Wednesday. Its spokesman, David Huynh, was unavailable for comment Thursday.

Pre-K supporters, some of them also touting the health benefits of consuming less sugar, were out in force at an overflow City Council meeting Wednesday night. But many other locals, not looking much like “Big Soda,” showed up to oppose the tax, including employees of the local Coca-Cola distributor, a 98-year-old Santa Fe business.

They also spoke in favor of pre-K, but put a face on the soda business by expressing fears for their jobs and families, citing their need to finance their own children’s care and educations, and wondering aloud why their industry is being singled out for higher taxes.

Rachel Lobb of the Kitchen Window restaurant near downtown expressed her own fears, saying restaurants operate on small margins and that “the bloodline is non-alcoholic beverages.”

How much the dueling PACs are spending will come out eventually as they are required to disclose their fundraising and spending during the election cycle. The first day to do that is March 23. There are three other reporting dates prior to the May 2 election and one afterward.

And now there’s a new player in the game. A group called Smart Progress New Mexico has begun circulating a petition opposing what it describes as “an unfair and regressive beverage tax.” It has a website and Facebook page, and describes itself as a political action committee. So far, it has not registered with the city as a PAC.

“We’re brand new,” said Loveless Johnson, spokesman of the group.

Johnson said it was formed “out of a very deep concern from local Santa Feans and business owners about the impact of the tax.” He said Smart Progress New Mexico is a “modest, humble, grassroots organization” that opposes the tax because it’s unsustainable, and hurts businesses and families.

Johnson said Smart Progress has started raising money and doesn’t have nearly the resources that Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K does. “We will never be as well funded as them, but we have a lot of people power,” he said.

‘Throwing stones’

During the public comment period of Wednesday’s City Council meeting – which lasted more than two hours and included more than 100 speakers – resident Marilyn Hargrove said the debate had gotten “messy” and urged everyone “not to throw stones.”

City Councilor Ron Trujillo, who cast the only vote against calling a special Santa Fe election May 2 on a proposed soda tax, said a mailer sent out by tax supporters used an unflattering photo to depict him. (Eddie Moore/Journal)
City Councilor Ron Trujillo, who cast the only vote against calling a special Santa Fe election May 2 on a proposed soda tax, said a mailer sent out by tax supporters used an unflattering photo to depict him. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

She may have been referring to a mailer sent out to registered voters in districts 2 and 4 targeting councilors Joseph Maestas and Ron Trujillo, who were sponsoring a resolution that would have delayed the public vote until the next municipal election in March 2018. Both councilors took offense. Maestas engaged in a back and forth with Wechsler in Twitter messages that got testy.

Trujillo blasted the group during Wednesday’s meeting. He taped an enlarged photocopy of the unbecoming picture they used of him on the mailer on the council dais below his nameplate and rhetorically asked what message Pre-K Santa Fe was really trying to send with the mailer. He said he was depicted as an “angry, Hispanic man who hates children.”

“I had people call and tell me, ‘Ronnie, that picture they posted on the flier of you looks like you just got out of la pinta,’ ” he said, referring to Spanish slang for penitentiary.

Earlier in the meeting, Carla Lopez, treasurer of Pre-K for Santa Fe, said the mailer was meant to be harsh and hard-hitting – it said “delaying only holds kids back” – but she apologized to Trujillo if the image was seen as racist.

Trujillo cast the only vote against the tax – not because he doesn’t support pre-K education, he said, but because he felt the tax was an overreach, that the city should focus on its core responsibilities like fixing roads, and that the tax could hurt local businesses.

Councilor Michael Harris said he was “very offended” by the mailers against Trujillo and Councilor Joseph Maestas, who had suggesting postponing an election on the soda tax to the March 2018 municipal elections. Councilor Renee Villarreal said she was disappointed in the tactics by both PACs. She said Pre-K Santa Fe’s mailer was “uncalled for.” Both Harris and Villarreal voted in favor of calling the May special election.

“Just because they have a different opinion, I don’t feel like they should be attacked for that reason,” she said.

As for Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K’s mailer against the tax, she said it contained “confusing and misleading information.”

Mayor Javier Gonzales tried to end the night on a conciliatory note. Responding to a comment by Trujillo that the soda tax debate had divided the community, he said that, while there was disagreement on how to fund early childhood education, everyone supported expanding pre-K services.

“So we are united as a community going forward and our commitment to make sure that pre-K is a reality for our children,” he said, later adding, “Let’s put this in the people’s hands and trust that they’ll make the right decision one way or another. But we know we are leaving here united.”

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