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Shame on California lawmakers for caving in to the soda industry

Shame on California lawmakers for caving in to the soda industry
  (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Beverage manufacturers hate it when local governments levy taxes on sodas, and with good reason. Berkeley’s 2014 tax on sugary beverages — the first such tax in California — quickly resulted in people buying fewer sodas and more water. Since then, more cities in California and other states have passed soda taxes.

To stop this trend in California, the American Beverage Assn., representing soda companies, and its business allies funded a ballot measure this year that would require a two-thirds majority of local voters to approve any local tax proposal and certain local fees (currently, some local taxes can be passed with a simple majority vote, and fees do not typically require voter approval). The measure is on the verge of being approved for the November ballot.

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There’s no question that if this measure passes it would cause trouble for local governments, making it far more difficult for them to raise revenue for any purpose. But that doesn’t justify the stinky backroom deal cooked up this week to pull the measure from the ballot.

The deal was worked out by business lobbyists and the Service Employees International Union, which represents many local-government employees. Presumably the union was involved because future raises and retirement benefits for their members depend upon the ability of local governments to raise taxes. But the agreement — which lawmakers were still working on late Tuesday — would slap a 12-year moratorium not just on local soda taxes, but also local taxes or fees on food packaging, wrapping and containers. In return, the measure’s proponents would remove the measure from the ballot.

Soda makers clearly fear that the next big threats to their bottom lines are efforts to curb disposable packaging like soda bottles. There’s growing alarm about the profusion of plastic trash in the ocean as the global market for recycled plastic is collapsing. Recycling fees and taxes could be powerful tools to reduce the proliferation of disposable plastic. A preemptive strike to take these tools off the table for 12 years in order to protect the industry’s profits is not just unfair, it’s unconscionable.

We would like to call out the elected officials responsible for this noxious deal, but we don’t know who they are. The compromise was hammered out in secret and then placed inside a budget bill that could be passed as soon as Thursday, thus shamelessly bypassing the normal lawmaking process. If it weren’t for a government transparency ballot measure in 2016 (which the Legislature vociferously opposed, by the way) that required the final text of bills to be made public at least three days before a vote, this deal might have been done before anyone realized what had happened.

We do know that no deal like this gets far without the backing of the leadership of the two houses of the Legislature, in this case Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). We also know that Gov. Jerry Brown dined privately with beverage lobbyists a few weeks ago. Shame on them if they give in to this ballot extortion to subvert local governments’ taxing power for years to come.

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