Beverage industry forces flexed their political muscle once again Tuesday, dealing crushing defeats to two different sugary drink tax measures in the Golden State.
In El Monte, nearly 77% of voters rejected a proposal to tax businesses 1 cent for every ounce of sugary beverages sold. A similar plan fell in the Bay Area city of Richmond, with about 67% of voters opposed.
Both measures sparked intense campaigning from the beverage industry, which used a broad array of tactics to argue that the tax would hurt families and small businesses. Combined, the opposition committees in Richmond and El Monte spent more than $3.5 million.
"What we found was, the more people knew about it, the more they didn't like it," said Fred Muir, a spokesman for the opposition committee in El Monte. "They don't like the idea of [the city government] trying to legislate their behavior, and they don't like impact on small businesses."
Chuck Finnie, a spokesman for the Richmond opposition campaign, said the victory was part of "a bigger war in the United States" between soft drink companies and health advocates who want to tap into their revenues to combat obesity problems. Despite Richmond's reputation as a "pro-tax town," he added, the measure failed to gain traction with most voters.
"The lesson from this is the tax doesn't make sense," Finnie said. Voters "really rejected the notion that you can fight obesity with this kind of tax."
The victories Tuesday follow a series of successful efforts by the American Beverage Assn. to thwart sugary drink tax proposals around the country. Last year, a beverage tax bill in the California Legislature failed to even make it out of committee for an Assembly floor vote.
Mayor Andre Quintero, the leading proponent of the tax in El Monte, said the results of the race could have a chilling affect on local politicians. A total of 10,845 voters rejected the measure, compared with just 3,279 in favor.
"To be competitive in a race like this you've got to raise between $1.5 [million] and $2 million," he said. "And for a local official, that's just unreal."
Quintero also pointed out that voters approved increases in taxes of various types Tuesday in cities such as Artesia, La Mirada and Culver City — where there was far less spending from outside corporate interests.
Still, Quintero suggested that the beverage tax battle wasn't over, saying "history will ultimately look kindly on our efforts as the beginning stages of a very important movement."
That sentiment was echoed by health advocates, who said their push to tax sugary drinks was not going away.
"While Big Soda may have stopped this measure, Mayor Quintero and advocates of children's health in El Monte have pioneered a new idea … and paved the way for future policies that will hold the beverage industry accountable," said Harold Goldstein, executive director at the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.