Santa Fe voters rejected a proposed tax on sugary drinks Tuesday by a sweeping margin, ending a contentious campaign that saw millions of dollars injected by outside sources on both sides of the issue.
The loss was a setback for the soda tax movement nationally, whose proponents closely watched the Santa Fe initiative in hopes of continuing the momentum that had carried them to a string of victories in various cities in 2016 after years of defeats in battles with the soft drink industry.
The lopsided outcome also was a blow to Mayor Javier Gonzales, who introduced the measure last year with support from proponents of using municipal taxing authority to support early childhood education and discourage unhealthy consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
Opponents resisted the proposed tax as an unfair overreach by city leaders and not the best way to fulfill a recognized need for expanding access to preschool programs.
“If one thing was clear in this debate, it is that there is overwhelming support for finding a way to make sure every child in Santa Fe and in New Mexico can go as far as their dreams will take them,” the mayor said in a statement Tuesday night. “We may not all agree on how to we get there, but that’s okay, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Now we get back to work, knowing that we have far more in common than the things that have long divided us.”
Gonzales, a former state Democratic Party chairman who has said he might run for governor, began pushing the proposal after repeated unsuccessful efforts by Democrats in the state Legislature to expand early childhood education by using part of New Mexico’s $15 billion land grant endowment.
The mayor’s statement Tuesday said he respected “every voice that was raised and every vote that was cast,” but he said in an interview that he maintains the vision that prompted his proposal. “As long as you have a situation where some kids have and other kids don’t when it comes to educational opportunities, we can’t give up,” Gonzales said. “Any person who is in elected office who chooses to sit on the sidelines rather than step in and offer solutions, no matter how controversial they may be perceived, they’re not serving the public, they’re serving themselves.”
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who has vowed not to approve tax increases, issued a statement Tuesday that said, “Tonight’s results send a clear message: even in arguably the most liberal city in the state, New Mexicans don’t have the appetite to pay higher taxes. This was the same out-of-touch agenda that Santa Fe lawmakers tried to jam through when they passed a $350 million tax increase — including raising the price of gas. Hopefully, legislators heard this message.”
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who has spent millions supporting similar soda tax measures in other cities, poured more than $1 million into the Santa Fe campaign, allowing a political committee called Pre-K for Santa Fe to financially stand toe-to-toe with tax opponents.
A political committee called Better Way for Santa Fe and Pre-K was funded largely by the Washington, D.C.,-based American Beverage Association. Anti-tax appeals to the pocketbooks of low-income residents and concerns about harming businesses apparently helped produce the margins against the proposal in all four City Council districts, but especially on the city’s south and west sides.
“I think the people of Santa Fe have a sent a clear message that we can find better ways to prioritize the city’s programs without hurting working families and small businesses with this discriminatory tax,” Better Way spokesman David Huynh said. “We remain committed as a coalition of small businesses, community organizations and local residents in working with the City Council and the mayor and local government and finding a way to fund pre-K.”
City Councilor Ron Trujillo, the only councilor who opposed the tax measure, said it failed because the initiative didn’t bring various interests, especially business owners, to the table early on.
“It’s unfortunate that the other side kept on saying that if you vote against this, you’re against children, if you vote against this, you’re immoral,” said Trujillo, who is running for election as mayor next year. “That was the wrong message to send to the citizens of Santa Fe because the people are not against pre-K and they’re not against children and they are not immoral because they vote no.”
Supporters of the tax initiative insisted the threat of economic harm was overblown and part of a misleading scare campaign. The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico on Tuesday night issued a statement headlined “Campaign of Alternative Facts and Misinformation Sinks Early Education Initiative.”
The city had estimated that the 2-cents-per-ounce tax on distributors of sodas and other sugary beverages would generate about $7.7 million in its first year. The mayor had expected the city to start collecting the tax in December and for new preschool classrooms to be up and running by the summer of 2018.
Tuesday’s special municipal election drew long lines of voters at several of the city’s eight voting convenience centers. Some people reported waiting in line for 30 minutes if not longer.
More than 70 people were waiting in line at the Montezuma Lodge in downtown Santa Fe when Olivia Newfield showed up. Newfield decided to go back home but said she planned to return to vote about an hour later. Even if the line was long when she returned, Newfield said she would wait to vote.
“I’m going to vote for the tax,” she said. “I think our kids need it desperately. When we’re at the bottom of the barrel, you’ve got to do something, and this is a good start. Sugar is not good for anyone. It causes so many health issues. Our kids need this, so we have to step up to the bat and swing.”
After voting at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center, Noah Sloan called the tax unnecessary and said parents, not the government, should be responsible for their children’s education.
“I pay for my 3-year-old to go to a prekindergarten program, so it’s on the parent,” said Sloan, 28. “I don’t think it’s on the government. We have a public school system that begins at kindergarten.”
Sloan, who drinks sugary beverages “every now and then and an energy drink in the morning,” also said he didn’t want to pay more money for his drinks.
“I’m against bigger government, and I don’t want to pay the extra tax,” he said.
Another voter, Sara Harsh, a 29-year-old mother of three, said the tax was worth the investment.
“I feel that education is more important than soda,” said Harsh, who stood in line at the Chavez Center with her 3-year-old, Everleigh, in tow. “I know a lot of people are worried that it’s going to hurt businesses and jobs. I think if it was food, that might be different for businesses. But it’s just soda.”
Harsh said her three daughters have been “lucky enough” to be able to attend preschool.
“We have the money for that and that’s great, though we’ve had to sacrifice at lot for that,” she said. “But it’s worth it. There’s a lot of kids that aren’t lucky enough to have that.”
At the Southside Branch Library, where poll workers said voters trickled in, Lelanda Abeyta, 39, said she planned to vote against the tax because she worried about the impact on small businesses and people struggling to make ends meet.
“People who are barely able to afford groceries won’t be able to purchase their groceries,” said Abeyta, who said she only occasionally buys her family sodas and other sugary beverages. “I don’t think they really thought about this completely or really have ironed out all the wrinkles and questions, so I just don’t trust that it’s a good idea.”
Regardless, Abeyta said she was glad the election was over. “We’ve gotten tons of flyers and had people come to our door,” she said. “I couldn’t even tell you how many flyers in the mail that have either come for or against it.”
Two political action committees on opposite sides of the debate reported spending more than $3.12 million combined in cash and in-kind contributions leading up to Tuesday’s election. A final campaign report is due May 16.
Only city voters could participate in the election. Raymond Ortega, a retired Los Alamos National Lab security guard who lives in the county, said he wanted to vote against the tax for financial reasons.
“I’m going to be affected by the tax if I buy products in Santa Fe, where I do,” he said.
Two groups that opposed the proposed tax, Smart Progress New Mexico and the Rio Grande Foundation, did not issue statements on the vote.
The American Heart Association issued a statement saying public health and education advocates were disappointed by the results of Tuesday’s election, partly because of concerns about how sugar consumption contributes to problems with heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes. But the group vowed, “We will continue to do everything we can to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks, which are the top source of added sugars for millions of people.”
In a statement, Sandra Wechsler, campaign manager for the pro-tax committee, said the group hoped proponents and opponents alike joined together “to fight with the same passion and energy” to provide pre-K for Santa Fe’s children.
“To those who believed that there was a better way to fund pre-K: we hope you will work hard to find that funding source,” she wrote. “To those who supported the soda tax, we urge you to keep working hard for pre-K and against the soda industry’s unhealthy beverages.”
Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.