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Covering the soda tax in Berkeley and San Francisco Date: 12/17/14

Tom Lochner

By Mary Otto

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 elections, Tom Lochner covered the debate over soda tax questions on the ballots in Berkeley and San Francisco. When the results became clear, he reported on the outcome for the Contra Costa Times.

“Berkeley, long identified as a birthplace of national progressive movements, on Tuesday became the nation's first city to tax sugar-sweetened beverages to combat diabetes and other ailments,” Lochner wrote.

“With a simple majority required for passage, Measure D surged to victory with 75 percent of the vote.

“A soda tax measure in San Francisco, meanwhile, fell far short of the two-thirds majority it required for passage.

"We think it's going to be a historic moment for our kids' health," Martin Bourque, executive director of the nonprofit Ecology Center in Berkeley and a spokesman for the Yes on D campaign told Lochner.

Berkeley’s penny-an-ounce tax passed in spite of heavy opposition from the American Beverage Association. Bourque predicted a sea change in the air. "The tides have turned on Big Soda."

In this Q&A, Lochner offers his insights into how the historic vote in Berkeley unfolded and he shares a few words of wisdom with reporters who may find themselves covering soda tax debates in their own communities.

As you reported, on Nov. 4, Berkeley voters approved a soda tax measure by a 3-1 margin. At the same time, a soda tax question in San Francisco went down to defeat and, as you wrote in one of your stories leading up to election day, efforts to pass a soda tax in the city of Richmond, Calif., two years ago also failed. Berkeley is undeniably a unique city. But are the analysts pointing to other factors that might help explain the passage of Measure D?

Here's one big difference between 2012 Richmond and 2014 Berkeley: In Richmond, several minority community leaders, including two city council members, opposed the soda tax. That didn't happen in Berkeley, where all of the members of the City Council supported the tax, the leadership of the yes campaign was very diverse, and no credible community leaders publicly and vocally opposed the tax.

The big difference between the Berkeley and San Francisco soda tax measures was that Berkeley's, as a general tax, with proceeds to go to the city's general fund, needed only a simple majority to pass. San Francisco's was a special tax, with proceeds earmarked for health- and nutrition-related programs, and thus needed a two-thirds supermajority to pass.

Interestingly, if it had been the other way around – a special tax in Berkeley and a general tax in San Francisco – then with everything else equal, it suggests that soda taxes would have passed in both cities. (In Berkeley, the yes vote was 76.2 percent; in San Francisco, 55.6 percent)

Opponents have criticized the measure for what they see as inconsistencies. While Measure D calls for a penny-an-ounce tax on most sweetened beverages, it exempts diet sodas and some sugary drinks such as chocolate milk. Is there any talk of a court challenge of the soda tax?

Several proponents of Berkeley's soda tax have told me they wouldn't be surprised if there is a legal challenge, if only because the opponents – chiefly, the American Beverage Association – have deep pockets. But I haven't heard on what grounds such a legal challenge would be mounted.

I cannot give a legal opinion, but I don't think that just because the exemption of some drinks such as chocolate milk strikes some people as inconsistent necessarily makes the tax vulnerable to a legal challenge. Of course, I could change my mind if someone should come up with a coherent argument that the tax is on shaky legal ground.

[Update: I just heard from the no-campaign: they say they haven't discounted any options, but as of right now they do not think a lawsuit is likely]

How do would you describe the public reaction to the outcome of the vote? Were people in Berkeley surprised the measure passed given that opponents, led by the American Beverage Association spent more than $2.1 million fighting the measure?

I would say people on the yes side were jubilant, but not surprised, that they won – although they did not expect the margin to be as big as it turned out to be. On the no-side, I got the impression that the soda industry was pretty much resigned to the likelihood that the tax would pass – not that anyone told me in so many words; it is just an impression. One thing that reinforced that impression is that even as the opposition continued to pour money into the no-campaign, it made statements to the effect that Berkeley is too flaky and aberrant to spawn copycat soda taxes in other communities. That sounded almost like a preemptive spin, perhaps – and this is just speculation – based on some poll that the opposition may have commissioned that may have predicted the tax would win.

Other opponents of Measure D, such as liquor store owners and other merchants that I talked to, appeared resigned that the tax would pass, but many of them did not seem too worried that it would put a big dent in consumption if, say, a 16-ounce soda were to cost 16 cents more.

You wrote that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered a late boost to Measure D, contributing more than $300,000 to the campaign. In a statement you included one of your post-election stories, you quoted a Bloomberg senior adviser saying "we stand ready to assess and assist other local efforts in the coming election cycle." Can you tell us a little more about how and why Bloomberg chose to get involved in Berkeley and what this may mean for other cities considering soda taxes?

With Bloomberg's history of trying to reduce soda consumption in his city, some soda tax proponents in Berkeley actually expressed their wonderment to me – just days before Bloomberg jumped in with his first contribution to the Yes on D campaign – that he hadn't contributed any money up to that point.

As for what it may mean to proponents of soda taxes in other cities: Bloomberg's senior adviser, Howard Wolfson, said in a statement: "We stand ready to assess and assist other local efforts in the coming election cycle.”

Are experts giving this kind of thing a chance of succeeding in other places now?

Since most of the people I have spoken to who have some expertise in soda tax issues are also advocates on one side or the other, it am not surprised that the ones on the yes-side say more cities will pass soda taxes in the coming years, while the ones on the no-side say Berkeley is an isolated case and unlikely to set an example for other cities to follow.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars being poured into the debate over the soda tax question in Berkeley, and with groups and organizations weighing in from all sides, how did you approach the challenge of keeping your coverage balanced?

I strove to be fair, and as when writing about any divisive issue, I sought out both sides and I tried to give each one an equal chance to communicate its views and to reflect those views accurately in my coverage.

Can you share a few words of wisdom with other reporters who may find themselves covering a soda tax in their own community in the next election?

I'm not used to dispensing words of wisdom to other reporters, but I can say that the soda tax drama is graduating to a new phase, now that one city (Berkeley) has become the first in the nation to pass one.

Tom Lochner (@tomlochner) is a reporter in the West County bureau of the Contra Costa Times in northern California

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