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Soda tax plan may be high in empty promises

If you go by the label, a city of Santa Fe plan might sound like a sweet deal – charge a tax on sugary soft drinks and pour the money raised into early education programs that could help boost children’s chances for success in today’s world.

Unfortunately, the list of ingredients is seriously lacking and could deliver as many empty promises as a sugary soda delivers empty calories.

Although voters in Santa Fe will decide May 2 whether to put a 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, it’s unclear how the pre-kindergarten programs touted to receive the estimated $10.6 million a year in tax revenue will be vetted and monitored. Sure, Mayor Javier Gonzales’ people have said they will all be highly trained and licensed people with high-quality credentials and services – but those are the same adjectives used every year to try to justify an early childhood education raid on the Land Grant Permanent Fund, sans any supporting qualifications or accountability measures.

Yes, New Mexico, like the nation, has a serious problem with obesity and diabetes. But it’s debatable a soda tax would drastically change behavior – there is nothing to keep residents from driving across the city line to other municipalities to load up on leaded Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper etc.

And, yes, the tax hurts consumers’ spending power. Santa Fe touts itself as a progressive city, yet a soda tax is a regressive one – people with low incomes who buy a soft drink will pay a bigger portion of their income as a tax than people with high incomes. Or they will shell out more gas money to save the tax on their pop. And if you don’t think residents are going to pay more not only at the register, but also at restaurants, think again.

The tax also hurts business. Less than three months after Philadelphia imposed such a per-ounce tax, The Associated Press reported, “PepsiCo says sales are down 40 percent compared to a year ago since the 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax took effect, and it will need to cut 80 to 100 workers.” Employees of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Santa Fe have voiced similar concerns in the public meetings leading up to the tax being put before voters. Groceries big and small have got to be worried they would sell, and thus make, less with the tax.

And it’s unclear how much the tax, which amounts to around $1.50 a six-pack, would raise. What happens if the tax doesn’t raise enough to ensure the mayor’s vow that all families who want their kids in pre-K have a pre-K classroom to go to? Does the tax go even higher than 24 cents a can? Does the list of taxed beverages expand? Do fewer kids get to go? If so, which kids are in and which are out?

Then there’s the whole question of who’s behind the pro-tax and anti-tax pushes. So far, Pre-K for Santa Fe, the PAC supporting the mayor’s plan, and Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K – which includes beverage industry groups, local restaurants and the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, all of which oppose the tax – have sent out mailers, and both have received at least $100,000 in so-called dark-money contributions. Those are donations from organizations that are under no legal requirement to disclose the source of the money they can dole out in elections. So while you know what’s in your bottle of soda or flavored water, you don’t know who’s behind the support or opposition to the increased tax.

It’s impossible to look at the status of education in New Mexico and not want to do something positive for the state’s students, especially the youngest ones. But there are so many unknowns in Santa Fe’s soda tax plan that there’s really no way to determine whether it would – or even could – deliver on its promises.

Or if it’s just another tax that kicks the accountability can down the road.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.