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Is I-1634 about groceries, soda taxes, or union jobs?

(AP Photo/Jeff Barnard)

Election Day is just over three weeks away and Washington voters will have four statewide initiatives to decide on their ballots. Among them is I-1634 – better known by its nickname “Yes on Affordable Groceries.”

To see the I-1634 ads you’d think it is about stopping the spread of a looming grocery tax, but as opponents of the initiative point out, it’s already illegal for local governments to tax food items like fruits, vegetables, milk, and bread. They say the campaign is really about stopping the spread of Seattle’s recently-passed sugary beverage tax — aka a soda tax.

The Yes campaign has raised some $13 million. Almost all of that money has come from soda companies. That’s compared to just under $8,000 for the No campaign, which is supported by health advocates, such as Vic Coleman with the Washington Healthy Kids Coalition.

Another major supporter of the initiative — labor groups. Pete Lamb, with Teamsters Local 174, is among those campaigning for I-1634. He told KTTH’s Jason Rantz that the initiative is also about protecting jobs.

“The reality of it is that this initiative protects beverages and foods, so from our labor perspective, every time you go to the store, basically every item you put in your grocery cart, is something that is either picked, loaded, or delivered by a Teamster,” Lamb said. “So these are really good jobs and we think that it is lunacy to impact and potentially decrease the number of good paying jobs in the State of Washington. We need more of them, I think we all can agree on that, not less.”

If I-1634 passes

As for what exactly it means if I-1634 passes?

“That local governments cannot impose taxes on food or grocery items, so counties and cities could not impose taxes like this,” Lamb said. “It could still come up in the Legislature, the Legislature could still impose or vote in a tax there (on a state level). I think though, if this is passed overwhelmingly – and the polls are showing strong support for it — we think that it sends a very clear message not only to local communities and municipalities, but also to the state Legislature as well.”

I-1634 would not repeal Seattle’s soda tax, but it would block it from going any higher. And it would make it illegal for other cities and counties in the state to pass such taxes.

Seattle’s tax — 1.75 cents per ounce — was sold as a way to discourage people from drinking soda while raising money for healthy foods for kids. The tax started in January. In the first six months of 2018, it raised more money than expected — $10 million.

Critics argue it is a regressive tax and backers of I-1634 say they want to keep it from spreading statewide.

But I-1634 opponent Vic Coleman with the Washington Healthy Kids Coalition tells KIRO 7 this is about a more important issue.

“It may be a regressive tool to do the tax, but it’s a progressive public health policy,” Coleman said.

But that remains to be seen. There is no solid data out yet on whether Seattle’s soda tax is leading to people drinking less soda. A report on that and other effects of the Seattle tax is expected next week.

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