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I-1634 backers warn soda tax could spread to food

A Coca-Cola vending machine sits in the basement of the California State Capitol as members of the Legislature debate a ban on local soda taxes June 28, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)
A Coca-Cola vending machine sits in the basement of the California State Capitol as members of the Legislature debate a ban on local soda taxes June 28, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

Supporters of an anti-tax initiative say they fear a local tax on food would hurt working families, even though they concede that no city or county in Washington has such a tax.

Seattle has a tax on soda and other sugary beverages that wouldn’t be affected by Initiative 1634, but any similar proposal a Washington city or county might like to enact would be barred if the initiative makes the November ballot and passes.

After turning in about 360,000 signatures on initiative petitions last week, the Yes on Affordable Groceries campaign held its official kickoff Monday, featuring representatives of labor and agricultural groups that back the measure.

“Food is a basic necessity,” said Kevin Roark, owner of the Bargain Giant Foods store in northeast Spokane. The initiative would keep local governments from taxing that necessity, he said.

Keilynn Manley, of Spokane, said the cost of living is already high enough, and taxes would just add to that.

“We can’t afford new taxes on groceries,” said Manley, a sales representative for an information technology training company. “Once they reach into your grocery cart, where does it stop?”

The Seattle City Council last year approved a 1.75 cent-per-ounce tax on most soda and other sugar-laden drinks – diet beverages and some drinks from small companies are exempt – that started on January 1. It was billed as a way to counteract the health effects of sugary drinks and provide money for nutrition and education programs.

It’s on track to raise about $16 million this year.

Other Washington cities have looked at a soda tax but none has adopted one. The Spokane City Council briefly considered it as a way to provide more money for law enforcement but dropped the idea after two months.

While no city or county has discussed a tax on any grocery item other than soda or sugary drinks, campaign organizers said they want to make sure that conversation doesn’t start. The initiative is focused on local government and wouldn’t prevent the state from imposing a tax on soda or groceries.

Although the Yes campaign for I-1634 says it represents a broad coalition from across the state that includes labor, small business and farm groups, more than 98 percent of the $4.76 million it has raised has come from three major soda manufacturers – Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr Pepper. The Washington Food Industry Association has chipped in $20,000.

The campaign spent about $1.3 million to pay a California-based company to collect signatures for the petitions it submitted last week.