Council approves soda tax

This afternoon the City Council voted to enact a tax on sugared beverages, after a protracted public comment session and debates on six last-minute amendments.

Here’s my previous posts on last week’s committee approval and Council member Burgess’s explanation of why they sprinted to the finish line.

Consistent with prior Council meetings on the topic, the public comments were split between proponents and opponents, both with strongly-held views on the topic. Many of the stakeholders on both sides have economic interests in the outcome: several nonprofits could potentially gain funding from the tax revenues, but it might also cut into profitability for small businesses and it might cost jobs — particularly for beverage distributors.

Council members O’Brien and Juarez offered amendments clarifying that the top funding priority for revenues generated by the tax should go to “expanding access to healthy and affordable food, closing the food security gap, and promoting healthy food choices” and that this included food banks and meal access programs.  Both of their amendments passed unanimously, 8-0 (Council member Sawant was absent today).

Burgess and O’Brien also each had a minor technical amendment, and both easily passed.

That left two trickier amendments. Council member Herbold took another run at trying to limit the regressive nature of the soda tax by reducing the tax rate from 1.75 cents per ounce to 1.25 cents per ounce, and by removing the exemption for sweetened milk and coffee beverages.  Her amendment failed by a 2-6 vote, only gaining the support of Council member Johnson.

Council President Harrell offered an amendment that would exempt “hand crafted” beverages, noting that a large fraction of the 1500 coffee shops in Seattle are small, independent businesses, and arguing that they were not intended to be a target of the tax. His amendment would also exempt bubble tea and other hand-prepared drinks.  Harrell said that the core of his intent was to focus on the products causing the most harm — a tax could be extended all the way to bottled water, but the question was where to draw a reasonable line.  In the end, though, his amendment also failed by a 2-6 vote, with only Harrell and Burgess supporting it.

The final, amended version of the bill was passed into law by a 7-1 vote, with Herbold as the only “no” vote.

Advocates for healthy food programs celebrated. Labor unions and labor advocacy groups, as well as small businesses, retail trade associations, and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, all reiterated their objections to the tax and their disappointment that the Council passed it.

The Mayor plans to sign it into law tomorrow. Then opponents will have 30 days to petition for a referendum.