The Soda War is On

Kids v. Cokes set for May ballot

Mock up the ballots, clog the radio airwaves and print the misleading mailers. We're heading into election season.

Make that special election season.

City Council on Wednesday approved a resolution leaving it up to voters to decide whether Santa Fe should levy a tax on sugary beverages to fund pre-kindergarten programs. Councilors also voted to set up a special fund for any revenue from sugar taxes.

Under Mayor Javier Gonzales' proposed ordinance, the city would impose a 2 cent-per-ounce tax on beverage distribution businesses that make more than $100,000. Those distributors would choose how much of the tax to pass on to retailers. All that money would be earmarked towards grants for nonprofits that provide early childhood care services, an effort to send nearly 1,000 local children to "high-quality" centers.

Wednesday's 8-to-1 vote followed a marathon public comment that brought out early childcare workers, business owners, medical professionals, community organizers and employees of a local Coca-Cola bottling company.

By passing the resolution, City Council scheduled a special election for May 2, which early estimates suggest could cost around $90,000. Anyone who wants to vote in the election must be registered by April 4. Early voting begins on April 12. (About 50,000 city residents were registered to vote in the March 2016 municipal elections.)  

Let’s put this in the people’s hand. Let’s trust that they’ll make the right decisions, one way or the other,” said Gonzales. "Where the state and federal government fails to act, then we have a responsibility to do so as a city that people call home."

Hundreds of Santa Feans filled the council chambers to capacity. Around dusk, the majority of attendees were supporters who spoke on the tax’s potential benefits on early childcare and public health. As the evening wore on, opponents of the tax filed into the room. Wearing Coca-Cola gear, employees of the company’s local distributor expressed fears of losing their jobs. Dozens more opponents cheered for their team (literally) from the hallway.

"While I don't have children, I would happily pay this tax to improve the city I call home," said Elizabeth Charley.

"As a pediatric dentist, I do see the effects of soda drinks every day on our children. Although I respect and feel for people who work in this industry, the acidity of these drinks destroys teeth," said Daniel Borrero.

Councilor Ron Trujillo, the most vocal opponent of Mayor Gonzales' proposal, delivered a five-page-long statement that spelled out potential consequences of implementing the plan, from lost jobs to fewer free refills. He also questioned whether it should be the responsibility of Santa Fe to shore up pre-K programs, as opposed to the state or the public school system. 

I understand there is a passion that goes along with wanting or not wanting something. My hope is we can move on from these ordinances that divide our community," said Trujillo. "Another way to put it: Let’s put potholes before politics."

Trujillo and Councilor Joseph Maestas, another rumored mayoral hopeful, sponsored a competing resolution that would delay a public vote on the sugar tax until the 2018 municipal elections. But the pair’s proposal, listed on the council agenda after the special election resolution, didn’t get heard Wednesday night.

Barry Kiess, CEO Coca Cola Bottling Company of Santa Fe, said the company will pass on 100 percent of the tax to retailers.

"Why aren't we considering other funding sources?" said Kathy Hart, human resources manager of the company. "The voters should get to decide whether it's funded by gross receipts tax or surplus or by the state. Why is that not on the ballot?"

Additional local Coca-Cola employees spoke up.

"This tax will hurt restaurants and businesses alike. Santa Fe will suffer. There's a better way, and I believe you all know it," said JD Damron, a field technician supervisor for the company, adding that he supports pre-K programs.

A battle of ideas fomented after the mayor announced his sugar tax proposal late last year, pitting some local businesses against Santa Fe's governmental leadership.

On the opposing side was the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, the Santa Fe Greater Restaurant Association, Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Santa Fe and American Beverage Association. Those groups formed a political action committee (PAC) called a Better Way for Santa Fe and Pre-K that recently filled the radio airwaves with ads and delivered glossy mailers claiming the tax will hurt poor people and local businesses.

But some in the business community, including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, threw support behind Gonzales.

Sandra Weschler, a longtime Gonzales ally who previously directed a PAC connected with his mayoral campaign, manages a pro-sugar tax group called Pre-K for Santa Fe. After Maestas and Trujillo introduced their resolution to delay a vote on the ordinance till 2018, the PAC printed mailers slamming the two councilors.

Trujillo was aghast when he saw the ad, which depicts his face with the text, "Why is City Councilor Ron Trujillo sponsoring a resolution to delay the pre-K for Santa Fe vote?"

“I’ll tell you exactly the message they wanted to send with this picture: angry Hispanic man who hates children,” he said, repeating a line he gave to SFR last week.

Addressing that charge, Pre-K for Santa Fe chairwoman Carla Lopez said, "If that's how it came across, I apologize personally. And on behalf for pre-K on Santa Fe. I looked at them and thought they were harsh. They were meant to be harsh and hard-hitting. As far as racist goes, I'm a brown person in this town. Me, to you: not racist." 

Since PACs only need to report their finances periodically, it's unclear who's bankrolling the mayor's pro-sugar tax campaign. But we have at least one hint. Gonzales in November met with Bloomberg Philanthropies, a nonprofit headed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, which has spent millions of dollars supporting sugar taxes across the United States and Mexico.

Here’s what we do know: The political battle is only going to get uglier. Strap in, folks.

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