It was the freest of times, it was the fattest of times. Well, not really the freest; it was 2014 and in California everything but recreational marijuana and condoms in porn was being regulated. But more on those later. Berkeley and San Francisco, two cities long since exchanging big government ideas across the Bay Bridge, shared now the desire to impose a soda tax on their respective subjects. Berkeley proposed a one-cent tax levy on every ounce of soda and other sugary drinks while San Francisco proposed two cents. Tax revenue from both cities’ proposals was specified toward children's health and nutrition programs. The measure got the two-thirds majority in Berkeley but failed in San Francisco where it received only 55 percent of the vote.
It’s important to know why these measures required a two-thirds majority. The California Constitution requires local governments to specify between general taxes and special taxes. Special taxes are “dedicated to a specific purpose or specific purposes,” which these measures were. (1)
As such, they required a two-thirds majority.
For all my research I have not found an attempt at an explanation as to why the barrier for entry is higher for special taxes.
Two years later SFGate says of Berkeley's soda tax revenue: “42.5 percent has gone to Berkeley public schools for cooking, gardening and nutrition programs. Another 42.5 percent has gone to community groups that work on health issues. The rest has gone to fund the administration of the program.” (2)
Also, a UC Berkeley study indicates that soda and sugary-drink consumption is down 21 percent in low-income neighborhoods. The researchers, who surveyed 2,500 people, say it's hard to tell if the decrease is a result of increased cost or raised awareness brought about by the campaign. (3)
No concrete word on whether this has made people healthier. Perhaps it’s too early to tell. It’s also too early to tell if this will cut down healthcare costs, another big selling point for these campaigns.
It’s also too early to tell if consumption will stabilize once consumers grow accustomed to the new cost.
This is where I’d normally go on a libertarian rant about how people can simply avoid soda if they are worried about the health risks rather than make it more difficult for others to consume what they want; I’d say it’s wrong to force your views on others and you should let others make their own decisions just as you'd like them to let you do the same; I’d say someone else drinking soda and risking diabetes and obesity does not impair your rights or liberties so why should you impair theirs?
But I won’t. Those arguments are too obvious and big government proponents are as aware of them as they are adept at ignoring them.
I do urge you though to ask yourself if government or society should weigh in on an individual’s decision to drink soda. Keep in mind that as I write this the government does not yet regulate the number of issues to which you can apply the “my body, my choice” argument although I worry half of you would support them if they wanted to.
Fast forward to 2016. The soda tax was on the ballot again in San Francisco, one cent per ounce this time. It was also on the ballot in Oakland and a few other cities.
This time it needed only a simple majority. As we know, a two-thirds majority is required when tax revenue is designated for a certain purpose. You’ve probably already figured it out: the fact that a simple majority was needed means revenue is not dedicated toward anything. Instead it goes into the city’s General Fund. But rest assured “backers of the taxes vowed to use the proceeds for health-related purposes, even if that wasn’t written into the measures.” (2)
The soda tax received the majority vote everywhere it was proposed in 2016.
In San Francisco it received 62 percent of the vote. It’s interesting to note that the measure would have failed again as a special tax. Despite cutting the tax levy from two cents per ounce to one, voter approval went up only seven points. The real difference between this year and two years ago was not the voice of the people but the tax’s lowered barrier of entry.
Why is a simple majority required when tax revenue will go into the General Fund but a two-thirds majority when tax revenue goes toward a specific initiative designed to help people?
Allow me to speculate. The laws are designed to make it easier for a measure to pass when local governments can use the revenue however they please. That way they don’t have to fulfill any promises and can use the funds for any purpose including increased surveillance and involvement in intimate aspects of our lives.
Contemplating this theory, one might deduce a calculated plot that began when the San Francisco measure was first drawn up in 2014. It’s possible the city anticipated that the measure would initially fail. I believe they even hoped it would. That way they could take two additional years to drum up support, with the bonus of using Berkeley as a positive example, and get it to pass without committing the proceeds. After all few voters know there are general taxes and special taxes. Fewer still know the difference.
Evidence of this is hard to come by but advocates of the measure spent $19 million on the campaign in 2016. (4)
The 2014 campaign doesn’t appear to have garnered the same zeal. After reading several articles and scanning dozens of others the only mention I found of advocate spending was on motherjones.com - $300,000. (5)
The increased spending could just be an honest redoubling of efforts but you can’t help but feel that the general tax was the ultimate prize all along.
But to quote Tom Holland whose book Rubicon partly inspired this blog: “It is not sufficient to blame a lack of sources alone for the mystery.”
I’ll keep an eye out for similar measures in the future and we’ll see if there is evidence to suggest a sinister reason for local governments to make it easier to impose a tax when the revenue has no official purpose.
At best, those who voted yes on the soda tax took a small step toward imposing their will over their more impoverished fellows in an attempt to help. At worst, they helped fortify those who hold power over all of us and no one is healthier for it.