I-1634’s fight against local grocery taxes

Voters approve local food tax ban
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For some backers of Initiative 1634, the measure is meant to prohibit local government from enacting soda taxes out of fear that ordinances like the city of Seattle’s on sugary drinks could spread to other parts of the state. However, other supporters view the underlying premise for the tax –to manipulate consumers to purchase healthier foods – as the canary in the coal mine warning of new potential taxes placed on other food products deemed “unhealthy” by local lawmakers.

Aside from the effectiveness of a “soda tax,” they believe this could eventually include not just flavored milk, but other agricultural-based products grown in Washington – to the detriment of local farmers and growers.

“There’s the desire to change the diet of Americans or Washingtonians by tax policy,” Washington Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said. “There’s been a desire to tax juices, but also other food products, and that’s our concerns. It makes our products less competitive. The grocery store should not be subject to local taxes that make it more difficult for people to feed their families.”

“We don’t think taxing food is a good idea,” Washington Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said. “You have no idea what the fads of the future might be; we would not want to see some local community decide they want to create another patchwork tax that makes it hard to move a market product.”

This rationale among some I-1634 backers perhaps speaks to an ongoing controversy over the meaning of the initiative. Some have criticized the campaign’s efforts to paint it as a fight for affordable groceries, arguing it is primarily funded by corporate giants. According to the Public Disclosure Commission, the top four donors to the I-1634 are the Coca-Cola Company, Pepsi, Keurig-Dr. Pepper, and Red Bull, who compose over 95 percent of total contributions.

Yet the initiative’s local tax prohibition applies “to any raw or processed food or beverage, or any ingredient thereof, intended for human consumption except alcoholic beverages, marijuana products, and tobacco.” Incidentally, it would not nullify Seattle’s sugary drink tax.

Beyond the large corporate backing, I-1634 supporters also include state-based industry groups, unions and the Korean American Grocers Association.

Stuhlmiller says that the intent of taxing food deemed “unhealthy” is to “make it so expensive people won’t drink as much. That’s all well and good, but what we’re arguing is, don’t take ag (agricultural) products….and put a tax on it. Tax policy is used to shape consumer behavior or taxpayer behavior, and that’s not the appropriate level to have that conversation.”

The problem ultimately boils down to who gets to decide what constitutes “healthy,” and which employer can successfully persuade local lawmakers their products shouldn’t be targeted, he added.

“If you need to raise money for government, that’s a different issue, but to target things like that, that social engineering, is not good for consumers,” he said. “It shouldn’t cost you more at the local grocery store versus the other store in another jurisdiction because of a policy simply designed to raise money.”

Stuhlmiller isn’t alone in his fear that a soda tax meant to encourage healthier diets is a slippery slope that could eventually lead to broader taxation on other goods.

“We as farmers know that food choices have become highly politicized,” DeVaney said. “A lot of people have very strongly held opinions about which foods they should choose, and they take that as gospel truth and want to try and enforce their choices through local taxing decisions, and we think that’s bad policy.

“It’s really about making sure we don’t start creating an ongoing fight in local tax law over what people should be eating at the expense of consumers,” he added. “People should make their choices about which foods they want to consume, but not force those on their neighbors.”

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