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Seattle soda tax: Scare tactics, politics, and a veto promise

(Dyer Oxley, KIRO Radio)

The very public fight over Seattle’s soda tax has produced scare tactics, politics, confusion, and a veto promise.

Are poor people funding government with Seattle’s soda tax?

On Monday, the Seattle City Council is expected to approve a new plan that will create a dedicated fund for all soda tax revenue. That fund will come with specific rules, to ensure all of the money goes toward expanding healthy food options, food banks, and promoting healthy eating. The rules state the money can’t be swapped for general fund dollars to pay for similar existing programs.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan says that’s a mistake. In fact, the mayor says she is ready to veto the bill if it passes.

“We have community-based projects and community-based organizations that are funding some of our most critical programs for people who need it the most,” Durkan said. “Everything form our food banks, to senior meals, to childcare assistance programs — all of those items will be cut if the council goes on this path.”

The mayor’s office warned several of those community groups this week that they should be prepared for cuts if the council approves the plan.

On Thursday, four council members sent a letter to the mayor criticizing the move and calling that a scare tactic. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda argues it’s simply inaccurate.

“Let’s be clear, there’s nothing in the legislation that took money from current programs,” Mosqueda said. “It is a miscommunication. It is intentionally misleading to tell any community organization that funding is at risk.”

That has left all the community groups who got the warning about cuts feeling confused and vulnerable.

Seattle soda tax debate

In the simplest of terms, this fight is over where excess money from the soda tax is going. Soda tax money was always supposed to be used to expand healthy food options, food banks, and promoting healthy eating and education programs. But in 2018, the tax brought in $7 million more than expected. The mayor’s budget grabbed most of that excess money to pay for existing healthy food and education programs that were previously paid for with general fund dollars, which in turn freed up general fund money to be used for other things.

Both sides insist they are standing up for low-income communities hit hardest by the soda tax.

Some on the council opposed the funding swap that happened in the mayor’s 2018 budget, but ended up voting for it because, they say, time was short and it was the only way to balance the budget. At the same time they asked the the mayor’s budget team to come up with a proposal by March to set up a dedicated fund for the soda tax money along with rules to ensure the swap can’t happen again.

When March came, the mayor’s budget office told the council to hold off until fall to be sure they could find another revenue source. The council didn’t want to wait, so now has its own bill to create that dedicated fund with spending rules for all soda tax money.

Durkan argues that’s going to leave a $6.3 million hole in the 2020 budget.

“They literally are cutting money from those programs that need it the most,” Durkan said. “I think that is very unfortunate. Particularly, it was contained in a budget they voted for. And now for, I think, a variety of political reasons they are trying to have it both ways, change their minds, and pretend they are not doing it.”

“I will veto the bill if it passes and they will have to make the determination if they want to continue with the cuts,” she said.

Mosqueda disagrees.

“So we’re not going back on our word, in fact we are keeping our word in terms of what we had committed to last year in the budget,” Mosqueda said. “And we are keeping our word to the voters. We are gonna keep these funds going to exactly what we said they would go to — education, nutrition,education programs and outreach from the sugary beverage tax. And we are keeping our word to not supplant budget dollars and play this money game of swapping current programs for former programs.”

“Now is the time we should be working together to make sure that all the programs are funded in next year’s budget,” “And that we are not pitting one organization against another. Which is exactly the type of communication that has happened. And it is really, really misleading and it is unfortunate that it has happened. And I am deeply disappointed that is the tone that has been taken.”

Mosqueda adds that the council will have an amendment on Monday that should help.

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