Don’t drink Kool-Aid on Initiative 1634; Washington should say ‘no’ to Big Soda’s $13 million con job

Local control is a cherished principle of Washington governance. In recent years, cities, towns and counties have blazed their own trails on everything from marijuana legalization to minimum wages, from filling potholes to reducing the stream of throwaway plastics.

People will always disagree on the policies, but we embrace our right to shape them through the grassroots tools of initiative and referendum and through elected community policy makers.

Initiative 1634 aims a dagger at the heart of local control, and that’s reason enough to reject it.

There are other reasons not to like this deceptive measure, which would prohibit local taxes on retail food and beverage sales. The yes campaign uses scare tactics about stopping cities from “reaching into your grocery cart.” But it’s really a thinly disguised attempt to thwart one very specific tax: an extra charge on sugary drinks, which contribute heavily to obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and other medical problems.

Call it regressive, or call it a “sin tax,” but it’s a proven way to curtail unhealthy habits that burden Washington’s public health system. New research from Cornell University found that sugary drink consumption in Philadelphia, one of seven U.S. cities with beverage taxes, has fallen 30 percent; meanwhile, retailers have adapted by stocking more bottled water.

In a meeting with our Editorial Board, I-1634 supporters repeatedly said they were “drawing a line in the sand.” But Washington cities aren’t storming the beachhead trying to tax your bread, milk, meat, fruit and vegetables. One city, Seattle, has enacted a beverage tax; since January, shoppers pay an extra 1.75 cents per ounce on soda, sports and energy drinks, and sweetened coffee and tea products.

The $13 million (and counting) campaign to pass the initiative, when compared to $7,650 raised by a public health coalition to counter it, is like bringing a gun to a knife fight — or rather, a howitzer. Out-of-state beverage behemoths are bankrolling the effort in Washington (and a twin campaign in Oregon); on a single day in September, $5 million flowed in from companies including Dr Pepper Snapple Group, PepsiCo, Red Bull and Coca-Cola.

Drink makers also stirred up an initiative in California this year to sharply increase the threshold for passing local tax measures. They agreed to drop it in exchange for a 12-year ban on all local soda taxes — a deal The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board aptly called a “shakedown.”

Don’t think for a minute the I-1634 funders are any less centered on Big Soda’s bottom line.

Yes, the initiative is backed by Washington groups including the Farm Bureau, Teamsters, restaurants and convenience store operators. We respect their concerns. But retailers and the workers who stock their shelves survived the sales crash of cigarettes. They’ll also soldier through the decline of sugar-laden drinks and replace them with healthier options.

Not surprisingly, the I-1634 campaign is exploiting the Seattle bogeyman factor. The city is criticized for spending beverage tax revenues — projected at $20 million a year — on a social-engineering experiment. Money is steered to programs ranging from distributing fresh produce to preparing kids for kindergarten.

Is this the best use of funds? That’s for Seattle to figure out. The same goes for Tacoma if it pursues a sugary drink tax, one of several potential strategies pitched by local Health Department officials in their 2017 chronic disease report and action plan.

Some cities might adopt a soda surcharge for cops, street repairs or various unfunded mandates imposed by state and federal government. Others might weigh the pros and cons — and ultimately say no. Spokane did that last year.

Such is the bottom-up beauty and self-correctional power of local control, and the chief reason why Initiative 1634 falls flat.

Crack it open and let the fizz dissipate. Beneath the phantom fears, you’ll find empty calories.