Offering daily news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

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:

NameTypeAmount
THE COCA-COLA COMPANYCash$2,266,412.03
PEPSICO, INC.Cash$1,708,826.88
DR PEPPER SNAPPLE GROUP, INC.Cash$709,070.83
RED BULL NORTH AMERICACash$55,690.26
WASHINGTON FOOD INDUSTRY ASSOCIATIONCash$20,000.00

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.