Here in Seattle, it's no surprise to anyone that coffee is big business. It seems there's an espresso cart, café, or coffee chain on every street corner. A new initiative hopes to tap into some of that coffee cash. A political action committee called the Early Learning and Care Committee, recently formed by a group of local teachers and childcare providers, is proposing a 10 cent tax on every espresso drink sold in Seattle. If their coffee initiative, called I-76, passes in November, the committee hopes to raise $7 to $10 million a year for teacher pay raises and improved childcare. No one can really argue with the fact that childcare is underfunded, but targeting a specific segment of the population, i.e., espresso drinkers, for cash is making a lot of Seattleites wonder, "What's the connection?"

The truth is, there is no connection between coffee and childcare other than money--coffee drinkers have it and childcare advocates need it. John Burbank, executive director of the low-income advocacy group Economic Opportunity Institute and an ally of the Early Learning folks, says that the espresso tax will be progressive because it targets those who can afford it. "Coffee is a discretionary good, and recent data show that people who drink espresso tend to have high incomes," he says. (Burbank is citing 1999 figures from the National Coffee Institute.) "We think 10 cents is completely reasonable." Burbank cites other "sin taxes" (on tobacco, liquor, etc.) as similar phenomena, and points to a recent statewide poll his organization did on behalf of the campaign, which shows that 74 percent of those polled support the tax. Seattleites apparently didn't pick up the phone when the pollsters called.

"It's complete bullshit," says George Pagones, sipping an iced Americano in front of Uptown Espresso in Queen Anne. "I mean, childcare is important, but the tax puts the burden of parenting on all of us. Where will the taxes end?" Flora Worley, a Columbia City resident and frequent coffee drinker, says, "Taxing coffee is so random. Of all things--why coffee? There is no connection to its cause."

As expected, coffee businesses aren't thrilled either. If the initiative passes, cafés and coffee companies will either make less or have to raise prices. If prices go up, which is likely, companies will pay more in taxes, as well as risk alienating customers with higher drink costs. Starbucks issued a statement two weeks ago saying, "[Our company is] already an ardent supporter of early learning and childhood development" and "we do not fully understand why the Economic Opportunity Institute would recommend an additional consumer tax on espresso beverages to fund this initiative." Other local companies agree. "Of course childcare is important," says Vivace Espresso owner David Schomer, "but tax all of society, not just small segment of it." Caffe Vita, Uptown Espresso, and other local coffee vendors made similar comments.

Despite local trepidation from café owners and coffee drinkers, the initiative is gaining momentum. Constant media attention, both local and national, as well as a recent legal green light from the city clerk's office and a large voter base of teachers and caregivers, should help the Early Learning campaign gather the required 17,000 signatures for the November ballot. Whether Seattle is willing to overlook the giant stretch between coffee and childcare and pass the initiative remains to be seen, but advocates argue something needs to be done about the local childcare problem.

According to Billie Young of the city's Child Development Program, a city agency that distributes childcare funds to low-income families, Seattle only covers about 20 percent of families who need assistance. Furthermore, Seattle childcare facilities and the teachers who staff them are notoriously substandard. "Seattle has a big quality gap," says Young. "A lot of that is from low wages and a high turnover rate. Teachers just don't make enough here to survive and stick around."

pat@thestranger.com

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