A gusher of red from a soda can
A gusher of red from a soda can (Photo: LenaLandmine)

Ini­tia­tive 1634. It’s been called the Wash­ing­ton Tax­es on Gro­ceries Ini­tia­tive and it’s spon­sored by a group call­ing itself Yes! To Afford­able Gro­ceries.

Sounds great, right? Who wants to pay tax­es on their groceries?

But there’s a prob­lem. A big one. Those labels are designed to mis­lead vot­ers. This ini­tia­tive isn’t about stop­ping a tax on gro­ceries. It’s about pro­tect­ing sales and prof­its for giant bev­er­age com­pa­nies. If you have any doubt, here are the cam­paign’s back­ers and their aggre­gate con­tri­bu­tions:

THE COCA-COLA COMPANYCash$2,266,412.03
PEPSICO, INC.Cash$1,708,826.88

I‑1634 is a direct reac­tion to the Seat­tle City Coun­cil enact­ing a tax on sug­ary bev­er­ages (e.g. soda, sports drinks, ener­gy drinks) back in January.

Known as a Sug­ar-Sweet­ened Bev­er­age (SSB) tax, this effort is part of a broad­er pub­lic health push, which includes encour­ag­ing healthy eat­ing habits and dis­cour­ag­ing con­sump­tion – espe­cial­ly among youth – of sug­ary drinks that may increase the risk of obe­si­ty and diabetes.

The Seat­tle SSB is not a retail sales tax. It’s levied on sug­ary bev­er­age dis­trib­u­tors who have cho­sen to pass that cost along to retail­ers and consumers.

Back­ers claim the I‑1634 cam­paign is being dri­ven by a “coali­tion of farm­ers, neigh­bor­hood busi­ness­es, work­ers, cit­i­zens and com­mu­ni­ty organizations.”

The I‑1634 cam­paign com­mit­tee’s finan­cial reports show us that’s not the case. Near­ly $4.75 mil­lion came from large out-of-state bev­er­age com­pa­nies and rough­ly 75% of that mon­ey went to the Wash­ing­ton D.C. based Dewey Square Group to pay for  sig­na­ture gath­er­ing. The rest was spent most­ly on ad buys and consulting.

Many vot­ers we’ve spo­ken with had no idea who’s real­ly behind this ini­tia­tive. None of them recalled hear­ing any men­tion of who was fund­ing the initiative.

And if you think Big Soda’s cam­paign nam­ing is bad, its mar­ket­ing is even worse, veer­ing into the realm of out­right deception.

I‑1634 cam­paign ads fea­ture small store own­ers, elder­ly gro­cery shop­pers and oth­ers used as props to elic­it an emo­tion­al response. They want you to believe tax­es might be levied on the basic sta­ples peo­ple buy to feed their fam­i­lies, despite the fact that no one has pro­posed doing such a thing.

Cam­paign mate­ri­als high­light a Real Change arti­cle, out­lin­ing how Washington’s tax code is unfair to low income fam­i­lies, but the mate­ri­als fail to point out that Big Soda’s ini­tia­tive would do noth­ing to fix the state’s upside down tax code.

And, if you thought I‑1634 would roll-back the Seat­tle SSB tax, you may be sur­prised to learn that it is grand­fa­thered in and will remain in effect, regardless.

The State of Wash­ing­ton clear­ly defines what qual­i­fies as “food and food ingre­di­ents” for retail sales tax purposes.

The major­i­ty of food and food ingre­di­ents are exempt from retail sales tax. Soda is not food and I‑1634 does not chal­lenge this definition.

So why run a cam­paign on the premise of fight­ing a fic­ti­tious gro­cery tax? Why sug­gest farm­ers are at risk when sug­ar sweet­ened bev­er­age tax­es have noth­ing to do with food crops grown in Wash­ing­ton (or any­where else)? Why use mis­lead­ing mar­ket­ing strate­gies to deceive voters?

As the New York Times report­ed, experts and evi­dence back the SSB tax’s abil­i­ty to dri­ve down con­sump­tion of sug­ary bev­er­ages which con­tribute to obe­si­ty and high­er med­ical costs. Recent­ly, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton began a new four-year, $2 mil­lion study to bet­ter under­stand the impact of Seat­tle’s sug­ary bev­er­ages tax.

In April, just weeks after Big Soda offi­cial­ly filed I‑1634, the Amer­i­can Heart Asso­ci­a­tion, Child­hood Obe­si­ty Pre­ven­tion Coali­tion, and the Anti-Hunger and Nutri­tion Coali­tion chal­lenged the bal­lot title and sum­ma­ry for I‑1634. Through their attor­neys at Paci­fi­ca Law Group, they argued that the mea­sure’s use of the word “gro­ceries” would be mis­lead­ing to vot­ers and that it was “real­ly an effort to stop oth­er Wash­ing­ton juris­dic­tions from adopt­ing soda tax­es sim­i­lar to Seattle’s.”

Mean­while, Perkins Coie attor­neys William Stafford and Kevin Hamil­ton filed a bal­lot title chal­lenge of their own on behalf of the I‑1634 cam­paign committee.

(Bal­lot titles are writ­ten by a state’s attor­ney work­ing in the Attor­ney Gen­er­al’s office, not the mea­sure’s spon­sors, and the titles can be chal­lenged by anyone.)

Reports filed with the Pub­lic Dis­clo­sure Com­mis­sion show the I‑1634 cam­paign com­mit­tee has paid Perkins $57,493.7 for legal ser­vices to date.

Thurston Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge Chris Lanese heard the bal­lot title chal­lenges. He ordered that the bal­lot title cre­at­ed by the Attor­ney Gen­er­al be mod­i­fied to a title pro­posed by Stafford and Hamilton.

The orig­i­nal bal­lot title was as follows:

Ini­tia­tive Mea­sure No. 1634 con­cerns tax­a­tion of gro­ceries. This mea­sure would pro­hib­it new or increased local tax­es, fees, or assess­ments on “gro­ceries,” with excep­tions, but allow tax­es, fees, or assess­ments in effect Jan­u­ary 15, 2018, to con­tin­ue. The mea­sure defines “gro­ceries.”

Should this mea­sure be enact­ed into law?

And here’s the final bal­lot title pro­posed by Perkins Coie and adopt­ed by Lanese:

Ini­tia­tive Mea­sure No. 1634 con­cerns tax­a­tion of cer­tain items intend­ed for human con­sump­tion. This mea­sure would pro­hib­it new or increased local tax­es, fees, or assess­ments on raw or processed foods or bev­er­ages (with excep­tions), or ingre­di­ents there­of, unless effec­tive by Jan­u­ary 15, 2018, or gen­er­al­ly applicable.

Should this mea­sure be enact­ed into law?

Lane­se’s rul­ing result­ed in an impor­tant word­ing change (the removal of the term “gro­ceries”), but his rul­ing has not prompt­ed the Yes on I‑1634 cam­paign to change the decep­tive lan­guage used in its marketing.

As a result, we are see­ing head­lines and quotes in media cov­er­age of I‑1634 that reflect the Yes cam­paign’s effort to deceive voters.

No mat­ter what it may be called, don’t fall for the decep­tive adver­tis­ing cam­paign behind I‑1634. And don’t let your friends and neigh­bors be fooled either. Spread the word. Urge your local media out­lets to expose this dishonesty.

Final­ly, vote NO on I‑1634 this autumn.

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