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‘We’re in a fight’ – soda tax campaign coming down to the wire

SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe’s special election to decide whether to impose a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages to help fund early childhood education programs is bubbling over.

Not only has it already set records for money raised and spent – campaign finance statements filed this week show about $2.8 million has been invested so far – but voters are turning out in record numbers for a municipal election.

The extravagant spending so far amounts to about $53 per registered Santa Fe voter, as of spending reports filed on Tuesday.

And as of Thursday afternoon, City Clerk Yolanda Vigil reported that 7,001 people had already voted in advance of Tuesday’s election – 393 absentee and another 6,608 casting early votes at either the Genoveva Chavez Community Center or City Hall.

By comparison, 1,003 people voted in advance of the last special election in Santa Fe in 2009, on a tax on high-end home sales to fund affordable housing programs. Including election day, 8,404 people cast ballots on whether a 1 percent excise tax should be imposed on buyers of homes purchased for more than $750,000, with 54 percent of them saying “no.”

Today’s final early vote total will also be well more than double the 3,134 absentee and early votes cast in the hotly contested three-way mayoral race in 2014, when four City Council positions were also on the ballot. The mayoral race that year – won by Javier Gonzales, who brought the soda tax proposal forward – drew 17,022 voters, a turnout of 29.4 percent of registered voters.

How many voters ultimately will fill in the bubbles on the ballot either for or against the soda tax, which would be expected to raise more than $7 million a year for early childhood education programs, is anyone’s guess.

“What we know about campaigns is that mobilization matters,” said Lonna Atkeson, director of the Institute of Social Research at the University of New Mexico. “Given the mobilization going on, there could be a higher turnout than what we’d see in a mayoral race.”

Sugar buzz

Sandra Wechsler, a political consultant who has been involved in Santa Fe elections for about 20 years, including helping Gonzales in the mayor’s race, thinks a turnout of greater than 30 percent is possible.

Wechsler is heading the pro-tax Pre-K for Santa Fe political committee and says she hasn’t seen another election like this one.

“There is more intensity,” she said. “People are seeing a lot of information in a short period of time.”

That’s because this election came with less than 60 days advance notice, and people are being peppered with television, radio, newspaper and internet advertisements, mailers, home visits and telephone calls from both sides.

The money being spent – more than $1 million worth of support from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in support of the tax and about the same amount provided by a soda industry association – is driving the early turnout, she said.

“Not one person we’ve talk to hasn’t heard about the tax,” said Wechsler, who has people canvassing neighborhoods across the city.

Wechlser’s counterpart at Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K, the political committee mostly supported by the American Beverage Association, also feels the fervor.

Sarah Vigil, with a sign opposing the proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, was part of the crowd at City Hall for a March council vote. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Sarah Vigil, with a sign opposing the proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, was part of the crowd at City Hall for a March council vote. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

“Voters in Santa Fe are really energized by this election,” David Huynh said when asked to comment about the early turnout. “Better Way for Santa Fe has spent this election educating voters, and they are coming out. We feel very good about what the early vote indicates.”

Huynh wouldn’t say if his group has any polling data. Staying on message, he said the early voting numbers indicate that Santa Fe voters don’t want to see a tax that would hurt families and local businesses with increased prices at the grocery store checkout, driving business out of town and putting jobs at risk.

The pro-tax side says that in addition to the health benefits of reducing sugar intake, the tax would create 200 jobs in early childhood education and expand pre-K programs to allow about 1,000 3- and 4-year-olds the opportunity to get a jump on their early development, have a better chance at long-term academic success and make them less likely to end up in jail.

Southside battleground

One of the arguments in the campaign debate is that a tax on sugary drinks is regressive in that it that would hurt lower income families the most because they are more likely to buy sugary drinks, and any consumer tax takes out a bigger chunk of their incomes.

But they also stand to benefit the most. Revenue from the tax would go to expanding local pre-K programs to help families who can’t get their children in programs because of full enrollments or because they can’t afford the $900 to $1,400 monthly tuition.

In Santa Fe, much of the lower income population is concentrated City Council District 3 on the south side, so there’s a disproportional need for making pre-K affordable on that side of town.

But data show that people who live in District 3 are less likely to vote, making it a key battleground in this election.

The city underwent redistricting after 4,400 southside acres were annexed from the county in 2014, increasing the city’s population by more than 13,000. Though redistricting left the city with four districts with relatively equal overall populations, District 3 lags far behind the others in the percentage of registered voters and voter turnout.

Currently, District 3 has only 7,291 registered voters, less than half the number registered in the more affluent north- and east-side districts 1 (17,138) and 2 (15,270). Mid-city District 4 has 13,358 registered voters.

What’s more, those who are registered to vote in District 3 are less likely to turn out. The 2014 mayoral election, which also included a three-way race for city councilor in District 3, drew just 21 percent of registered voters in the district. The other three districts attracted more than 30 percent of eligible voters.

That’s important in this election, because whether someone voted in the last municipal election is the best indicator that they will vote again in the next election.

Wechsler says that Pre-K for Santa Fe is focusing on bringing out voters citywide, but the group has scheduled some information sessions and events at the Southside Library and Zona del Sol, also on the south side. She said the demographics of the area also make it a target for the soda industry.

“It’s worth noting that the reason soda consumption is higher in communities of color is because of relentless, targeted advertising by the soda industry to the tune of billions of dollars,” she said, referring to District 3’s Hispanic make-up. “We’ve known from the beginning that we’re in a fight against big corporations and industries out to protect their profits.”

Huynh says his group isn’t doing anything special to get District 3 voters out to the polls. “We’re targeting all districts,” he said. “We’re finding overwhelming support in district 1, 2, 3 and especially 4.”

He credits District 4 City Councilor Ron Trujillo for that. Trujillo cast the lone “no” vote against holding a special election on the sugary drinks tax when the decision came before the City Council last month, saying it wasn’t the city’s job to regulate commerce or get involved in pre-K education, and that it should focus its attention fixing roads, improving parks and providing public safety services.

Notably, Trujillo is so far the only person to have announced his intention to run for mayor next year, setting up a potential run against Gonzales, who is also considering a run for governor. The outcome on Tuesday could have an impact on how both men’s political fortunes turn out next year.

Close finish expected

Wechsler and Huynh don’t agree on much – though even the anti-tax faction has generally voiced support for the idea of expanding pre-K services – but they do agree it should be a close vote come Tuesday night.

“When it comes down to it, this vote will be close and every vote will matter,” Wechsler said. “Everyone who cares about the future of Santa Fe and pre-K should come out and vote.”

“We believe it will be a very close vote,” Huynh said, “but we believe our voters are coming out because they see the increased cost and loss of jobs, and how this could hurt the economy in Santa Fe.”

They also agree this is less of a partisan election than others with candidates representing political parties.

It’s a political truism that Republicans generally oppose tax increases and Democrats are more inclined to support them. Santa Fe is decidedly Democratic, with 68 percent of Santa Fe voters registered Democrats. Just 12 percent of eligible voters in the city are Republican. Three percent are with the Green, Libertarian or Better for America parties, while 17 percent declined to state their party affiliation.

On March 8 at City Hall, Jesse Leinfelder, right, takes part in a rally in support of the soda-tax-for-pre-K proposal that voters will decide at a special election on Tuesday. Early voting closes today. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

On March 8 at City Hall, Jesse Leinfelder, right, takes part in a rally in support of the soda-tax-for-pre-K proposal that voters will decide at a special election on Tuesday. Early voting closes today. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

So who will turn out to decide this election is difficult to predict. Will the older and more affluent voters in the east-side districts – with a huge edge in voter registration, always the most reliable voters in municipal elections, less impacted by an increase in price and less likely to have pre-K-age children in the house – be motivated to vote by the progressive messages of pre-K for all and taking down “Big Soda” and its sugary products?

Will the southside and mid-town voters, who would pay a larger portion of their incomes on a consumer tax, but stand to gain more from expanded pre-K programs, show up?

What about people who fully support pre-K, but don’t like the idea of city government influencing what they buy and what they consume?

UNM’s Atkeson suggests it comes down to who can best mobilize their voters.

“I expect the usual suspects who participate in normal elections will vote,” she said. “Then, you have the mobilization effort, which could bring out people who are stimulated by the topic or who might be compelled to vote due to the taxation issue … . The point is, they are thinking about it. More people are probably thinking about this election than any city council or mayoral election.”

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