Initiative 1634 aims to stop local taxes on groceries

(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)

Ballot initiative looks to stop things like Seattle sugary drink tax…

Going to the grocery store is something we do with little thought to political ramifications. Come this November, however, Washington Initiative 1634 will bring this everyday activity onto the ballot.

The Initiative, which has the support of numerous unions and corporations, would prohibit local government entities from imposing any new tax, fee or other assessment on grocery items. Seattle enacted a 1.75 cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages, raising the cost of a case of soda from $9.99 to $17.55. The tax raised $10 million in six months, according to King 5 news.

The Spokane City Council toyed with the idea as a way to hire more police officers, but dropped it in the face of public opposition. Berkeley, San Francisco, Albany and Oakland in California have passed similar taxes, along with Boulder, Colo. and Philadelphia.

The initiative would still allow the state to impose taxes on groceries, a sticking point for the opposition group to the initiative.

“Initiative 1634 takes away local control and gives it to the state,” the WA Healthy Kids Coalition said on their website. “This confusing measure imposes a one-size-fits-all state law that takes power away from voters and hands it to the state, silencing our voice in local decision-making. Corporate special interests are spending millions to strip away voter choices and protect profits. I-1634 has nothing to do with keeping our food affordable. In fact, tax prohibitions on everyday food items — from fruits and vegetables to milk and bread—are already reflected in voter-approved state law.”

However, supporters feel differently and point to the Seattle tax as an issue.

“We think people are fed up with regressive taxation,” Peter Lamb, a senior business agent for the Teamsters Local 174 Union said. “We think citizens of Washington have clearly seen what’s taken place in Seattle and are not okay with this type of tax. This initiative gives the citizens of the State of Washington and our workers the ability and the right to vote on this because they are the ones shouldering the burden predominantly.”

Grocery items are defined in the initiative as “any raw or processed food or beverage, or any ingredient thereof, intended for human consumption.” Groceries include meat, produce, grains, dairy, seasonings and condiments. Alcoholic beverages, tobacco and marijuana products do not qualify as grocery items and would not be protected from new taxes.

The initiative, supported by the committee “Yes! To Affordable Groceries” has received $8.01 million in cash donations from companies like Coca-Cola ($3.8 million), PepsiCo ($2.8 million), Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (1.1 million), Red Bull North America ($93K) and the Washington Grocery Association.

“Local governments across Washington are looking to raise revenues and one idea they’re looking at is new taxes on foods and beverages,” the Yes! To Affordable Groceries statement read. “People feel taxed enough and can’t afford new taxes on what they eat and drink. Washington’s tax structure already places a greater burden on working families than any other state in the country. Heaping taxes on everyday grocery items will raise our cost of living and make it even harder for working families, small businesses and their workers to get by. That’s why Yes! To Affordable Groceries is exploring ways to prevent new burdensome grocery taxes from advancing in local communities across Washington. We appreciate the budget issues that communities face. But there is a better way to handle the challenge than targeting grocery carts for more taxes that will only hurt working-class families, small businesses and their employees the most.”

Supporters of the Initiative also include the Teamsters Local 174, Joint Council of Teamsters No. 28, Korean-American Grocer’s Association of Washington, Washington Food and Beverage Association and the Washington Farm Bureau.

Likewise, the one committee to opposed Initiative 1634 is the “Healthy Kids Coalition” which has reported $250 in gathered funds. Those also opposed to the initiative include the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition and the Permanent Defense PAC.

“[Initiative 1634] is a proposed law funded by the soft drink industry (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, and Red Bull),” stated No1634.org which the Permanent Defense PAC sponsors. “The measure seeks to prohibit local communities from raising money for public health services by levying taxes on sugary beverages like soda, but it would allow the state’s largest city, Seattle, to keep its existing sugary beverage tax. Essentially, what the soda companies want to do is deny every other community the freedom to raise money for public health by taxing sugary beverages, and prevent Seattle from ever raising its tax. They’re spending millions to convince Washingtonians to pass their self-serving scheme.”

There is a similar measure on the ballot in Oregon. If voted in, the measure would take effect after January 15, 2019.