Soon after Mayor Ed Murray unveiled the details of his soda tax proposal at City Hall today, a group of opponents held their own press conference to raise concerns about the tax.
Soon after Mayor Ed Murray unveiled the details of his soda tax proposal at City Hall today, a group of opponents held their own press conference to raise concerns about the tax. JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY

Mayor Ed Murray has addressed one key argument against his proposed soda tax, but will still face opposition to the pitch.

Back in February, Murray proposed a $16 million-a-year tax on soda distributors to fund educational and health programs focused on students of color. But that tax wouldn't have covered diet drinks, which are favored by a richer, whiter demographic.

Today, Murray backtracked. Now, he says his tax will cover diet drinks as well as regular soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, and bottled coffee drinks, raising $23 million in its first year and $18 million in the years afterward as people buy fewer of those drinks.

The bulk of that money will go toward programs that focus on children between birth and 5 years, programs to support "parents' ability to support their child's learning," and to funding a free year of community college for all students who graduate from Seattle public high schools. Those and other programs the tax will fund grew out of an "education summit" the mayor convened last year.

According to Murray's office, 31 percent fewer students of color in Seattle public schools meet third grade reading standards than white students. Murray said the city's achievement gap between white and black kids is the fifth worst among major cities. Soda companies are targeting communities of color "just like tobacco companies did," Murray said, so the city should tax them to support programs to help those communities.

While the addition of diet drinks makes the tax more palatable for some, the sales tax is still regressive, meaning it will hit poor people like those in the communities Murray says he's hoping to help. Murray and Council Member Tim Burgess attempted to deflect concerns about that today, saying they have limited taxing options.

"To those who say that we are resorting to a regressive tax, I say, you know what is more regressive?" Murray said. "You know what is really taking money out of African American communities? Tolerating an education system that is failing students of color every day and leaving them without a future."

Soda companies and some labor unions are vowing to fight the tax.

Jennifer Cue, the CEO of Jones Soda, said she feels Seattle is targeting soda companies when it should instead tax all sugary products, like candy, if it's really trying to decrease sugar consumption. "The impact is on small local businesses," Cue said.

The 1.75 cents per ounce tax, if companies choose to pass it on to consumers, would translate to an extra 35 cents on a 20-ounce bottle of soda or an extra $1.18 for a two-liter bottle.

Teamsters Local 174 business agent Pete Lamb said today his union opposes the tax for fear it could cause job losses. Lamb cited Philadelphia, where Pepsi this year blamed layoffs on that city's soda tax. The city, in response, slammed Pepsi for laying workers off even as it makes billions in profit. (If these arguments feel familiar, it's because they are. During the 2014 minimum wage debate and last year's fight over secure scheduling rules for hourly workers, business made similar scary warnings of theoretical job losses. In the case of the minimum wage, they have proven unfounded.)

Jack Evans, a spokesperson for the opposition coalition branding itself "Keep Seattle Livable for All," said large national soda companies like Coke and Pepsi, which have fought soda taxes in other cities, are involved in organizing the group. He could not provide specifics about their involvement by deadline. I'll update this post if I learn more.

Other groups, like the environmental justice organization Got Green, have supported the tax but urged the mayor to shift some of the spending toward programs to help close the "food security gap." While the tax will expand Fresh Bucks, a program that allows people on food stamps to shop at farmers markets, Got Green wants the city to fund a similar program for people who may make too much to qualify for food stamps but still have trouble buying healthy food.

"One of our Food Access Team members, Kim, is a pregnant single mother with a five-year-old daughter," members of Got Green wrote in a recent editorial. "According to Kim: 'I work 2 part time jobs so that I am able to pay my rent and bills. Although I have 2 jobs, I don’t always have enough money for food. Because I have 2 jobs I do not qualify for the [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] program and often take my child to my sister’s or mother’s house to have meals.' Families like ours will continue to fall into the food security gap and face long-term health issues unless existing programs are strengthened."

The mayor's proposal will go to the city council in coming weeks. Council Members Tim Burgess and Rob Johnson stood beside the mayor in support today, but the opposition from labor could win sympathy from some other members of the council like Kshama Sawant, setting up a potential fight with the mayor.

After Murray's initial proposal, one of his challengers, Nikkita Oliver, said in an interview she worried about possible inequities in who would pay the tax. (She has also expressed skepticism about Murray's promises to fund programs focused on young black men.) Another of Murray's challengers, former mayor Mike McGinn, has also questioned the tax. But it's likely to be resolved before the August mayoral primary election.