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Tea Party, Seattle-Style: Espresso Tax Goes Down

September 17, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — The city that gave birth to Starbucks overwhelmingly rejected on Tuesday what would have been the nation's first-ever espresso tax.

With well over half the votes tallied, including all the mail-in ballots, 68% of Seattle voters had turned down the 10-cent tax that would have been applied to each of their double-tall, nonfat, hazelnut lattes or any of their other frothy concoctions. Full election results were expected by 2 p.m. today.

"I like the way the trend is going," said a cautiously optimistic Randy Pepple, spokesman for a coalition of business and coffee interests, including Starbucks Corp., the 800-pound gorilla of the coffee world that campaigned against the measure. The name of the coalition, naturally, was JOLT, or Joined in Opposition to the Latte Tax.

John Burbank, whose nonprofit think tank sponsored the initiative, officially known as Initiative 77 and whose choice of drink is a double-tall vanilla latte, had said the city's "benign" addiction to caffeine would make the tax virtually "recession-proof" and would greatly benefit the city's children.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Espresso vote -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about Seattle's failed espresso tax initiative incorrectly referred to "a grande, nonfat, 2% caramel mocha with half-inch foam and cinnamon sprinkles" as an espresso drink. Such a drink can either be nonfat or 2%, not both.

Revenue from the tax, estimated to be $1.5 million to $7 million a year, would go toward city preschool and day-care programs, which have suffered from state and local budget cuts.

Supporters were crestfallen as the vote count progressed. "Where's the help going to come from?" asked Tim Sheehan, a middle school teacher who said young children are paying the price for underfunded child care.

The measure put famously liberal Seattleites in an awkward position: Would a vote against the tax be tantamount to voting against the city's poorest children? Would voting in favor of it open the door to other "random" taxes that would play on the city's liberal mores, say, a tax on microbrews to pay for environmental programs?

"What's next?" said Pepple. "Taxing bottled water to fill potholes or putting a tax on salmon to pay for traffic signals?"

The espresso-tax measure shot some zest into what otherwise might have been a sleepy, off-year primary. Backers raised $129,000, opponents $165,000 in what became a lively, some would say frothy, debate.

Jeff Babcock, owner of Zoka Coffee and Roasters, staged a theatrical protest earlier in September, throwing coffee bags into Seattle's Green Lake, Boston Tea Party style. American colonists in 1773 protested a British tax on tea by throwing loads of tea into Boston Harbor. Babcock called the espresso measure an "unfair tax" and decried the characterization of espresso as a luxury.

"It's part of the culture here," Babcock said.

Backers of the tax said it could bring in $7 million a year, but foes said that $3 million was more realistic. And some city estimates put the revenue number closer to $1.5 million.

The initiative was the brainchild of a local think tank, the nonprofit Economic Opportunity Institute, which promotes public policy in the interest of low-income people. The organization has long championed child-care causes.

Supporters characterized espresso as "a luxury" and touted the measure as a creative way to pay for a good cause.

The funds raised would pay for wage increases and training for preschool teachers and tuition for low-income families, among other aid. The tax would apply only to espresso drinks -- caffeinated or not, with single or multiple shots of espresso -- such as lattes, mochas and cappuccinos, but not to regular drip coffee or tea. Exempt would be businesses with gross annual sales of less than $50,000.

Espresso is the hot, dark brown liquid that results from shooting steam through coffee grinds into a cup. The liquid, sometimes served in "shots," tastes like a highly concentrated coffee and is usually mixed with steamed milk. The most common espresso drinks are lattes, mochas and cappuccinos, but modern coffeemakers have come up with infinite variations creating a whole espresso lexicon that often baffles the uninitiated.

For example, a grande, nonfat, 2% caramel mocha with half-inch foam and cinnamon sprinkles is a perfectly legitimate drink among the espresso aficionados of this coffee capital. A typical espresso drink in Seattle costs between $2 and $4.

Coffee giants Starbucks and Tully's Coffee Corp., along with many smaller coffee vendors, worked with the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce to form JOLT. Starbucks, which has 80 stores in Seattle, contributed nearly $50,000 in the fight.

The tax would have forced coffeehouses and restaurants to track sales of any beverage that contained espresso, a task sure to be cumbersome. Seattle voters also were approving a measure requiring Seattle police and the city attorney to make marijuana-related offenses the city's lowest law enforcement priority. The yes votes were leading 56% to 44% in late returns.

Meanwhile in Oregon, a measure aimed at rescuing that state's beleaguered pension system by selling state bonds was leading 55% to 45% and voters in two counties -- Benton and Harney -- rejected tax increases to help ailing schools.

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