San Francisco and Berkeley both have soda tax measures on the November ballot. But backers have chosen different strategies.
San Francisco’s measure requires a 2/3 vote because it directs the $35-54 million in annual tax revenue for specific purposes —such as nutrition and physical education at schools, and to install more water fountains around the city, Berkeley’s initiative only requires a majority vote because the money goes to the city’s general fund.
Are voters more likely to approve a tax whose revenue goes to a specific purpose? This was suggested in an op-ed by Kerry Cavanaugh in last week’s LA Times.. She concluded that San Francisco’s soda tax initiative was better than Berkeley’s because “a soda tax is ultimately a ‘sin tax,’ and a sin tax is more acceptable when the money is going to reduce the impact of the sin. San Francisco’s ballot measure clearly does that; Berkeley’s does not.”
I see it differently. I think the 2/3 vote will likely doom San Francisco’s soda tax, while the Berkeley measure needing only 50% is a heavy favorite to pass.
The Steep 2/3 Hurdle
It’s very difficult to get 2/3 support for ballot measures. That’s why school advocates went to the state ballot to reduce the threshold for school construction bonds from 2/3 to 55%, and why no housing bond has won in San Francisco since 1996 even though the city’s political establishment and key stakeholders all support more housing.
That SF’s 1996 housing bond barely passed with no organized opposition and heavy spending on the yes side speaks volumes. The soda tax faces heavy opposition and will be hugely outspent by the unlimited coffers of the American Beverage Association and its sugar and soda allies.
While SF’s only winning housing bond had the unanimous support of the Board of Supervisors, the Board only approved the soda tax on a 6-4 vote. Both Westside Supervisors (Yee and Tang) opposed it. Would they have done so if they thought their constituents backed the tax and/or if they thought it would win? Probably not.
Supervisor Jane Kim trotted out one of the favorite Big Soda arguments in claiming that the tax unfairly penalized low-income residents and people of color. Expect these quotes to be included in a future mailer to eastside voters, as the American Beverage Association made similar appeals in defeating Richmond’s soda tax initiative.
I can’t think of any local or state ballot measure that got 66.7% of the vote in the face of such early opposition. It would require 80% majorities in places like Noe Valley and the Marina to offset this, which is a very steep climb.
Backers of the soda tax understand all this. But they concluded that voters would be more turned off by mailers claiming that tax revenue would be spent on government boondoggles, and decided to go with a special tax that allocates the funds.
Earmarking soda tax funds for health related purposes is better policy. But it’s not better politics.
Big Soda will still claim tax revenue will be wasted despite the earmarking. Yet needing an additional 16.7% of the vote is a huge obstacle that SF measure with big moneyed opposition has ever overcome.
Berkeley’s soda tax will pass. It’s the perfect electorate for this measure; it’s as if Noe Valley voters represented half the San Francisco electorate.
For all of the jokes made about “Bezerkely,” the city has been the pioneer in more social polices that went national than perhaps any city in the United States. And when Berkeley hands Big Soda its first major election defeat, even more cities are likely to put such measures on the ballot.
These include San Francisco, so long as the soda tax wins a majority vote in November. That’s what makes San Francisco’s initiative so critical despite the unlikelihood of it winning a 2/3 vote. If Berkeley wins and San Francisco gets over 50%, then the San Francisco soda tax needs to return to the 2015 ballot (or 2016, which offers a better electorate).
If you are uncertain about the soda tax, check out some of Dana Woldow’s Beyond Chron articles on Big Soda’s “myths” through our search box. If Big Soda’s campaign promoting tooth decay and diabetes were decided on the basis of what’s best for public health, the soda tax would prevail in a landslide.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.