Eye On Olympia

Drink up...

One of the most interesting things Gov. Christine Gregoire mentioned in a meeting last week with the Spokesman-Review's editorial board was that until a week and a half ago, her budget proposal included a tax on soda pop.

It's not a new idea. Former Gov. Gary Locke proposed such a tax among the "sin taxes" in his final, lame-duck budget proposal in December -- and was roundly mocked by Republicans who questioned whether a Pepsi really qualifies as a sin. The issue's come up in previous years as well. Soda pop syrup is already taxed by the state, but Locke was looking at something more along the lines of a nickel-per-can tax.

Gregoire said she torpedoed the idea after lawmakers objected. Her budget director, Victor Moore, said the industry was unhappy at the prospect of the drink tax.

Still, taxing pop is likely to remain an attractive fix for budget writers struggling to come up money to pay for state services.

For one thing, it's kind of like cigarette taxes (which Gregoire is proposing hiking). Sugary soda and its empty calories, some lawmakers have argued, are a prime reason for the growing number of obese children. Make it cost more, the argument goes, and public health will improve, at least marginally.

Secondly, there's real money in a soda tax. Lawmakers have plenty of tax options to look at, but many of them raise the Olympia version of chump change. Tax bakery products, for example, and you can expect about $27 million a year. Tax candy and gum: $16 million. Tax funeral homes: $4 million.

Even if the state charges every household in the state a flat $2-a-month "energy tax," it would still raise only $55 million a year. And when weighed against a $26 billion general fund, those amounts are what some lawmakers call "budget dust."

A nickel-a-can tax on soda, however, would raise $301 million over the next two years. That's enough general-fund dollars to run Eastern Washington University, the Washington State Patrol, the state park system, the Department of Ecology, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the governor's office. Combined. For two years.

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