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SANTA FE – A national trend in favor of so-called “soda tax” initiatives took a hit Tuesday when Santa Fe voters soundly rejected a proposed 2-cents-per-ounce tax on the distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages in a special election unlike anything New Mexico’s capital city has seen before.
A record 37.6 percent of registered voters turned out for the election – more than the hotly contested 2014 three-way race for mayor won by Javier Gonzales, who proposed the tax – and 58 percent voted “no.”
The final tally was 11,533 against the soda tax and 8,382 in favor. Voters in the city’s middle- and lower-income neighborhoods went against the tax in huge numbers, while the vote in Santa Fe’s affluent north and east sides split almost precisely 50-50.
After numerous efforts to impose soda taxes in other cities failed, five U.S. cites and Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago, approved such levies in the past six months.
Santa Fe’s 2-cents-per-ounce proposal would have matched Boulder, Colo., as the highest in the nation and was aimed at financing an effort to make 1,000 pre-kindergarten education slots available to Santa Fe children for free or at affordable rates.
Gonzales conceded defeat of the tax shortly before 10 p.m.
“I put this forward because I see thousands of Santa Fe children start their lives behind the curve, and I simply can’t stand aside and do nothing when the possibility to act and act decisively is right there in front of us,” he said in an email statement.
“If one thing was clear in this debate, it is that there is overwhelming support for finding a way to make sure every child in Santa Fe and in New Mexico can go as far as their dreams will take them. We may not all agree on how we get there, but that’s OK, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Now we get back to work, knowing that we have far more in common than the things that have long divided us.”
Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K, the group opposed to the tax that was financed mainly by the American Beverage Association, cheered the death of the tax proposal, but said it still supports pre-K services.
“Today, the people of Santa Fe stood up to say we can fund our city’s priorities without making it even harder for working-class families,” said David Huynh, who managed the anti-tax campaign. “People saw through the political agenda of outside forces who wanted to impose an unfair tax at the expense of middle-class families and small-business people in Santa Fe.
“Our coalition of local businesses and community organizations remains united in support of expanded pre-K, and we welcome the opportunity to work with the city and community to find better ways to fund this much-needed program.”
The campaign drew intense interest locally and money poured in from outside the state, with nearly $3.3 million spent for and against the tax. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, helped counteract the soda industry’s dollars by providing more than $1 million in support of the pro-tax effort.
Voters were barraged with almost daily phone calls from the campaigns and regular home visits from canvassers. There was also a steady stream of mailers from both sides, as well as radio spots and advertisements on Albuquerque television stations.
The split between Santa Fe’s neighborhoods showed up in the voting. The south side’s lower-income, more Hispanic District 3 voted 1,719 to 649 against the tax. The vote in mid-city District 4 was the most significant – 3,694 against to 1,628 in favor.
The high-end, northeast District 1 was the only district to go for the tax, but barely – 3,203 for to 3,187 against. Neighboring District 2 narrowly rejected the tax 2,933 against to 2,902 for.
Tax opponents gathered at the downtown Boxcar Bar and Grill on Tuesday night. Activist Gloria Mendoza, born and raised in Santa Fe, but now living just outside the city limits, suggested during the campaign that elites should tax tofu instead of soda. “County residents are really upset because they weren’t able to vote in this election,” she said Tuesday, adding that many of them are affected because they do their grocery shopping in Santa Fe. “There are families that were driven out because it became too expensive for them.”
Laurie Martinez is a city resident and voted against the tax. “I just don’t believe anybody has the right to tax what people consume,” she said. Martinez also didn’t like the fact that by drinking sugary drinks, she’d be paying for the schooling of other people’s children. “I have a 95-year-old father and nobody helps me pay for his senior care,” she said.
Among supporters of the tax-for-pre-K plan at the Violet Crown Cinema’s café in the Railyard, Carrie Wood said she has a 5-year-old son who went through pre-K and that’s why she voted “yes.” “It’s amazing the difference I’ve seen since he started. His vocabulary has improved and he knows his ABCs. It also helps with social skills – conflict resolution and he’s so much more articulate with his feelings. It’s really made a difference.”
Glory Auldon is a pre-K teacher. “This will provide more access for families, and the most vulnerable families who cannot afford it,” she said before the election results became clear. “It will also provide better training for teachers and mean better wages. Often, teachers teach because they love it, but they also have to support their families.”
After the vote was decided, anti-tax Gov. Susana Martinez – who had stayed out of the campaign – released a statement that said, “Tonight’s results send a clear message: even in arguably the most liberal city in the state, New Mexicans don’t have the appetite to pay higher taxes. This was the same out-of-touch agenda that Santa Fe lawmakers tried to jam through when they passed a $350 million tax increase – including raising the price of gas. Hopefully, legislators heard this message.”
Turnout: 37.6 percent