In many ways, Initiative 1634 on the November ballot is a solution in search of a problem. The initiative would prohibit local governments from enacting taxes on groceries.
The Columbian’s Editorial Board recommends a “no” vote on the measure, preferring local control over taxes rather than a blanket statewide ban. As always, this is merely a recommendation. The Columbian trusts that voters will examine the issue before making an informed decision, and when it comes to Initiative 1634, such examination might lead to more confusion than it should.
That is because the measure is not really about imposing local taxes on apples or potato chips or milk at the corner store. Instead, it is a reaction to the Seattle City Council’s decision to tax sweetened beverages, a tax that took effect Jan. 1 and raised more than $10 million in its first six months.
In 2013, no municipalities in the United States had soda taxes; since then, at least eight sizeable cities have enacted such taxes, arguing that sugary drinks contribute to public health concerns such as obesity and diabetes. Taxes bring in money to support public health initiatives, and an increase in prices for the products is designed to reduce public consumption. This, understandably, has drawn the attention of the soft drink industry, and companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have contributed more than $8 million to the Yes! To Affordable Groceries committee to oppose the initiative.
We are strongly in favor of affordable groceries. Who wouldn’t be? But the campaign being waged is more than a bit misleading. Washington has not had a sales tax on groceries in more than three decades, and most basic items are exempt from sales tax. Therefore, to properly consider the initiative, questions should revolve around soft drinks.
When viewing it from that perspective, we have mixed feelings. Arguments can be made that use of a legal product is a matter of personal choice and that what citizens eat or drink is not of concern to local government. If soft drinks are such a public health issue that they should be taxed, perhaps those products should simply be banned. But that would be an extreme reaction to a relatively minor problem, and it would amount to egregious government overreach. Those arguments suggest that Initiative 1634 should be approved by voters, and there is merit to them.
On the other hand, the issue also speaks to the importance of local control that reflects the norms of a community. Seattle has approved a tax upon sweetened beverages, and if the local populace disapproves of that decision, voters can replace their city councilors through elections. Initiative 1634 would not overturn the Seattle tax; it would simply place a prohibition on similar taxes throughout the state.
Meanwhile, the measure ignores the role of educating people about the benefits and the dangers of sugary drinks. Studies have suggested that such drinks increase the risk of heart disease in addition to previously known risks, and that is important information for consumers to understand.
Overall, there are several issues surrounding sweetened drinks that warrant a robust public discussion. But when it comes to Initiative 1634, The Columbian believes that local control outweighs other concerns. Unlike ballot measures regarding gun control or carbon emissions, a local tax on soft drinks does not have the potential to impact residents in other parts of the state. It is a local matter that should remain in local hands, and we recommend a “no” vote on I-1634.