NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, July 16th, 2018

This autumn, take a stand for public health and vote NO on Big Soda’s Initiative 1634

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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