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Sugar Tax Fails

Voters soundly reject moralistic tone, show lack of confidence in City Hall's plan for beverage tax to benefit pre-K

May 2, 2017, 10:15 pm

A proposed 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks distributed in Santa Fe left a sour taste in the mouths of voters as they rejected the plan by a wide margin. Unofficial vote totals announced by City Clerk Yolanda Vigil had 58 percent of votes against the tax and 42 percent in favor, as of press time. About 38 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. 

The vote followed eight weeks of bare-knuckled, divisive campaigning over a tax that would help 3- and 4-year-olds. The proposal would have used the estimated $7.7 million raised annually by the tax on beverage distributors to pay for seats in pre-kindergarten programs, both public and private, within the Santa Fe Public Schools district boundaries. Supporters said that money could have funded 966 new seats.

Opponents of the tax, who complained bitterly about the moralistic tone of the election, amounted to a silent majority that found its voice late in the election. Election Day results showed huge margins against the tax at voting convenience centers on the Southside. Despite the fact that convenience centers allowed voters to cast a ballot anywhere, most chose to vote close to home. On the north side, two of the busiest centers at Montezuma Lodge and St. John’s United Methodist Church broke for the tax, but their combined 545-vote margin was nearly eclipsed by Kearny Elementary School’s results, which showed 211 in favor and 762 against.

Early and absentee votes topped 8,000 and took all day for staff to count at City Hall, but margins at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center were similar to Election Day, with 64 percent of the 5,000 votes coming in against the tax.

Many voters embraced the idea of expanded pre-kindergarten programs, but either had trouble with the proposed method of paying for them or balked at it altogether. 

“I think we need to get this early-childhood stuff going,” said Harry Bixby, who voted yes. “I’m not particularly fond of this way of doing it.”

Outside a voting convenience center Tuesday, Jamie LaPan-Uhl called the tax “elitist” and voted against it. “It’s a no-confidence vote in the mayor and the city’s ability to do what they want to do with the money. I think there’s a better way to fund early education,” she said.

Sporting a NFL jersey and white sunglasses, City Councilor Ron Trujillo held a sign on the street corner outside the Southside Branch Library voting convenience center—“Your Vote Matters: Vote No!” As the lone councilor to oppose the tax, he took some heat for his stance. Trujillo said this campaign felt different than the 2009 special election where voters rejected a real estate transfer tax on homes that sold for more than $750,000.

“You didn’t see the divisiveness in the transfer tax like on this issue. It’s not good,” Trujillo said. He and other opponents of the tax felt supporters turned the election into a good-versus-evil narrative. “Why would you even say that, that this is immoral and it’s against kids?”

Outside Sweeney Elementary, John and Anne Macker said they felt the contentiousness of the election came from the fact that it proposed a new tax, but one that would benefit children.

“I think that early childhood education is essential. I don’t think the money’s gonna come from anywhere else at this point because the state’s finances are so abysmal and controversial,” John Macker said. “I don’t think it’s going to penalize people who do indulge in pop and things like that. I don’t think it’s a law that does that, but they’ve publicized [that view] so much. They’ve made it almost a class issue, and it shouldn’t be.”

Organizers on both sides of the issue disavowed the idea of a class struggle.

“We just aren’t gonna know until later,” said Sandra Wechsler, the Santa Fe political strategist who spearheaded the pro-tax Pre-K for Santa Fe, as the after-work crowds hit polls. “But I can tell you from our side that we had a huge array of people and a lot of diversity working on our campaign, from working families to more affluent voters as well.”

“I don’t think there’s a class divide,” said Better Way for Santa Fe and Pre-K’s David Huynh. “Do I think that working families and small businesses and employees of small businesses are going out en masse to oppose the tax? Yes. But do I also think other high-income people across the city are also opposing the tax? Yes.”

 Pre-K for Santa Fe issued a statement around 9:30 pm conceding the election, and Mayor Javier Gonzales followed suit. 

 “No matter your point of view, I respect every voice that was raised and every vote that was cast in this election, and of course we honor the decision the people of Santa Fe have made. As a public official you can never go wrong listening to the voices of the people you serve,” he wrote. “Our commitment, my commitment, to Santa Fe’s children will only grow stronger moving forward. 

Aaron Cantú contributed reporting. 

Read SFR's election night breaking report here

 

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