by Sharayah Lane
Monday’s Seattle City Council meeting had one item on the agenda, whether or not to impose a new tax on sugary beverages in Seattle.
The bill, which would levy a $0.0175/per ounce tax on all sugary beverages, was put to a vote. The tax is expected to generate $15.5 million with 20 percent of it being set aside for programs focusing on food security, early childhood education and worker retraining for those expected to be disenfranchised by the tax.
Despite data showing health successes in other cities across the country that have enacted the tax, the room was deeply divided on the issue.
The sugary tax would be considered regressive in nature, meaning that its cost burden would be placed most heavily on low income consumers, and in this case, equates to predominantly people of color.
Representatives from local organizations in favor of the tax showed up strong on Monday.
“I’ve witnessed firsthand the broad and diverse support this proposal has in the community,” said Tina Liu, a volunteer with the Seattle Healthy Kids Coalition, referencing a row of ‘pledge to support cards’ gathered at El Centro De la Raza and displayed on the back wall of chambers. “As you can see the public support for this measure literally fills the room.”
However, a large number of Seattle business owners, predominantly people of color who said they would be negatively impacted by the increased tax, were also present to voice their opposition to the bill.
“We believe the beverage tax is too much,” said local small business owner Mike Leek, “everything that has been thrown in our direction needs to settle down before we start adding some unfair taxes. I am very lucky and will survive this because I have stores outside Seattle that will cover the extra losses. I feel sorry for the people invested in Seattle only.”
Storeowners with businesses on the northern and southern borders of the city discussed their fear that business will suffer if customers go outside city limits to purchase sugary drinks.
Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez introduced an amendment reducing the tax for businesses earning less than $5 million from 1.75 cents per ounce to 1.00 cents per ounce.
A provision initially proposed by Mayor Murray was to include diet sodas in the tax to help shift some of the burden off lower income communities. The racial equity toolkit conducted on the measure found that white, higher income people were more likely to drink diet soda.
This provision did not pass.
Lika Suzamura, a dietitian and community nutrition educator with Rainier Valley based non-profit Got Green addressed the importance of the diet soda incorporation.
“The one place I want to stand firm is that we do believe it is important to include diet soda in this tax. It is not going to be equitable, it is not going to be spread across the community fairly because we know it is higher educated, higher income people, who tend to be white people, who drink diet soda,” said Sazamura, “We understand this is a regressive tax and we only support it because it will go back into supporting food security in the community.”
The only councilmember to vote against the bill was Councilmember Lisa Herbold.
“I’ve had several concerns about not only how to spend projected revenue, but about the tax itself,” said Herbold in a statement following the vote, “The bill that came out of committee isn’t only regressive, I feel that it is punitive to low income people and small businesses. Unfortunately, the amendments to significantly reduce the tax rate and include diet beverages failed at committee, but my amendment to prioritize nutrition and access to healthy food programs passed unanimously.”
After several amendments and discussion the bill went to a vote. Passing council 7-1 with only Councilmember Herbold opposing and Councilmember Sawant absent.
“People can clap now though right?” asked Councilmember O’Brien following the bills passage, “yes people can clap,” said Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who represents South Seattle, as the room erupted in prolonged applause and cheers from supporters.