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Seattle council questions mayor’s plans for extra soda tax money

The Seattle soda tax went into effect Jan. 1, 2018. (Dyer Oxley,

Mayor Jenny Durkan has a plan for the millions of extra dollars brought in by Seattle’s soda tax, but the city council is not ready to sign off on the idea.

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Seattle’s sugary beverage — or soda tax — was expected to bring in about $15 million in its first year. It’s now expected to add up to more like $21 million by the end of 2018.

The mayor’s proposed budget uses that money for healthy food and education programs that, until now, had been paid for through the general fund. The extra money could allow Durkan some general fund cash to balance the mayor’s overall budget, which increases spending on homelessness, police, and other priorities.

But some on the city council are upset with the mayor’s proposal. That includes Debra Juarez, who said in a Monday budget session that she was really disappointed that programs included in the soda tax legislation were not getting any of the extra money.

“It’s like a bait-and-switch,” Juarez said. “You said ‘please pass this tax for poor people so we can worry about obesity and actually have a place where people can have food because we have food banks and other programs like Fresh Bucks. Oh, but by the way, we had an increase, but we’re not going to raise money in the programs that we originally intended this money for,'” Juarez said.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien had similar concerns, pointing out that the council knew the soda tax would hit the poorest communities hardest, but passed it anyway because the money was going to be used for healthy food and education programs to benefit those communities.

“It’s really important that we’re not using a tax on these low-income communities to fund broader societal needs — that are good things to do,” O’Brien said. “If we need to do that, we should be coming up with a more equitable tax, but instead the specific revenue that we’re dedicating from here should be going back into those communities as directed.”

He also indicated he had a plan to to keep a similar swap from happening in 2020.

Seattle soda tax: Council vs mayor

The Seattle Times reports that the council plans to pass the mayor’s budget, but with changes. It’s not yet clear what those could be.

In a statement, the mayor’s office said:

Mayor Durkan’s proposed budget plan reflects her commitment to focusing on essential services, addressing our affordability crisis, creating a more inclusive Seattle, and investing in a city of the future. That’s why her proposed budget invests in sustainability, food security, and expanding access to transit. In developing her new budget plan for Seattle, Mayor Durkan evaluated all available revenue streams and efficiencies to ensure the City of Seattle is living within its means. The City Budget Office and the Mayor’s Office have not received proposed cuts from City Council that would make up for re-appropriating Sweetened Beverage Tax revenue.

Her office added, “The Mayor’s proposed budget both continues and expands funding for healthy food access and educational readiness for children and high school graduates, among other programs, consistent with the intended uses of the Sweetened Beverage Tax.”

It is still unclear whether the soda tax is cutting down on consumption as it was intended to. A University of Washington report studied consumption rates and other issues related to the tax. That analysis was originally expected to be presented to the council on Monday, but has been pushed back until later in the fall, according to the King County Health Department.

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