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No on the tax on sugary drinks

SANTA FE, N.M. — This editorial has been corrected from an earlier version to show that the study referred to was from Berkeley, Calif., not Boulder, Colo.

Someone who works regularly in the political theater said this week that all sides are right in Santa Fe’s increasingly vicious and incredibly expensive fight over a proposed 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks.

As “Big Soda” and many decidedly “Not Big Soda” folks – City Councilor Ron Trujillo, irrepressible activist Gloria Mendoza and County Treasurer Patrick Varela among them – argue, a tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks is in fact regressive and will hit poor and low-income families hardest.

It also could be a job-killer if it works likes the tax’s advocates hope and encourages less consumption of soda pop.

To say the tax-for-pre-K program is expected to create hundreds of jobs for people who provide early childhood education is a good point made by tax supporters, but it does nothing for Coke employees or small store operators whose livelihoods could be affected.

But it’s also true that the $7 million-plus that would be raised by the tax goes for a good thing – expanding pre-kindergarten education and making it accessible to all income levels, including the low-income families who probably will pay an inequitable share of the bill for the program in a part of the world where childhood poverty is endemic.

And there’s a positive in the fact that early childhood education would be a totally new field of operation for city government. That means the money raised by the soda tax goes only for pre-K, instead of being blended with other city funds.

Still, we again say the ballot item should have been written to include just a few specifics to forever assure that the money doesn’t go to mere babysitting or a day-care center run by some politician’s grandmother. The current City Council has in fact enshrined high standards for the pre-K program by ordinance and puts assessment duties into the hands of experts at Santa Fe Community College, which is great. Voters for the tax just have to trust that those standards won’t be weakened down the line.

As the Associated Press reported this week, the state allocates about $50 million a year to underwrite full- and part-time pre-K for about 9,000 children, but has been stymied from spending much more by faltering tax revenues. So Santa Fe’s proposal appears to be following a bipartisan consensus on the value of pre-K – Gov. Susana Martinez has touted her own spending increases in this field.

But there’s a legitimate academic argument around the country about the long-term value of pre-K, as some researchers say the benefits start to fade after about the third grade, when non-pre-K kids start to catch up. The experts working with Mayor Javier Gonzales on the Santa Fe proposal counter that results show that quality pre-K really does make a difference.

All of this doesn’t even get into whether the government should be in the business of trying to get people to drink less sugar water, or why sodas – as opposed to red meat, bacon, pork rinds, foie gras, Frito pie, french fries, butter-cream frosting, Bechamel sauce, potato chips, or candy – have been targeted.

Everyone knows drinking too many sodas is not good for you. But the question of how successfully a soda tax helps encourage a healthy diet overall doesn’t have a definitive answer. A recent study from Berkeley, Calif. that found lots of favorable results from that city’s sugary drink tax also seemed to suggest that consumers may be buying more non-taxed milk shakes and yogurt smoothies instead of sodas.

In the final analysis, the proposed tax is just too high – $1.44 on a six pack – and extends to ridiculous proportions in some cases. By taxing powdered drink mixes by the liquid volume they can produce, distributors of a $7 canister of lemonade mix would be taxed nearly $22. That’s sugar being treated like it was meth.

The best plan is for the mayor and the talented people who developed the pre-K plan to come back with a broader funding base that isn’t so divisive.

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