El Centro de la Raza executive director Estela Ortega said soda companies disproportionately target youth in communities of color.
El Centro de la Raza executive director Estela Ortega said soda companies disproportionately target youth in communities of color.

Editor’s note: Carlyle’s Senate seat is being challenged by libertarian candidate Bryan Simonson in the Nov. 6 general election.

Washington 36th District Sen. Reuven Carlyle is up for re-election, but used Tuesday’s stop at El Centro de la Raza to instead stump for the No on 1634 campaign and announce legislation he plans to introduce next session that would increase transparency when corporations push agendas through political action committees.

The state senator had pictures of the CEOs of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and Red Bull on display during his press conference, identifying them as the backers of a $20 million campaign to deceive voters into giving up more local control.

Initiative 1634 is billed as a measure that would prohibit local taxes on groceries — retail food and beverage sales — but there’s a problem.

“Sales tax on groceries are already illegal,” said Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, and a member of the Washington Healthy6 Kids Coalition that is opposing I-1634.

While food and food ingredients are exempt, the Washington Department of Revenue determined in August 2017 that taxes could be imposed on soda, bottled water, energy drinks and juice containing less than 50 percent of fruit juice.

The Seattle City Council passed a 1.75-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages last June, which took effect at the beginning of 2018. The city estimates it will collect $20.6 million in this first year. Revenue was originally projected at $15 million, with funding earmarked for the Fresh Bucks program, food banks and nutritional education programs.

The main opponent of Seattle’s sugary beverages tax was the American Beverage Association, which is also leading the I-1634 campaign in Washington state, as well as one for Measure 103 in Oregon, which would also prevent local governments from placing taxes on groceries. I-1634 would have no effect on Seattle’s tax on sugary drinks.

Ortega said the soda companies that injected $20 million into the Yes! To Affordable Groceries PAC are the same that disproportionately target youth in communities of color, resulting in higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“Washington state has a romantic image of ourselves from a 1972 public disclosure initiative that disclosed who pays for campaigns,” Carlyle said, “but the loophole in our law is that we do not have clear articulation of how that money is spent and who is behind initiatives.”

The state representative said that loophole is what the soda companies backing I-1634 are hiding behind, and that campaign is the driving force behind his plans to introduce legislation in 2019 that would require a company providing a minimum of $50,000 to a measure to have its logo published on campaign materials.

This will be an amendment to Senate Bill 5108, written by Sen. Andy Billig and co-sponsored by Carlyle in 2018, which would have prohibited a political committee from receiving 70 percent or more of its backing from another political committee. It passed in the Senate, but died in the House.

Carlyle’s amendment would also require the top-5 contributors to a campaign to be listed in order of support, according to a news release, “so that voters can easily see the level of corporate support for any given measure.”

“We are standing up and saying that the people of this state demand transparency and visibility into who is funding,” Carlyle said.

The state senator compared the soda industry’s attempts to remove local controls on taxation to that of the tobacco industry in the 1970s and the NRA for gun regulations in the 1980s.

“This is a made-up, artificial political problem,” Carlyle said of the anti-grocery tax campaign, “and virtually every political consultant in the state is being paid by Big Soda to win this race.”

With TV stations present, Carlyle extended his message to cities across the state, encouraging them not to vote against local control.

“Preempting local authority is the nuclear option by Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and Red Bull,” Carlyle said. “There’s not an ounce of threat that there’s taxation of groceries in this state.”

Dr. Mollie Grow, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital who spoke as an individual during the Oct. 23 press conference, said she supports Seattle’s tax on sugary drinks. She said one in three children is likely to develop diabetes, and one in three children are already overweight or obese.

“As a physician, I know the real-world impacts on our children and families of the epidemics of diabetes and obesity,” she said. “As Sen. Carlyle said, the science is clear: consuming sugary drinks is directly linked to these diseases and a host of harmful effects on our health.”

While revenue from Seattle’s sugary drinks tax is higher than expected, Washington Healthy Kids Coalition spokesperson Aaron Pickus said the University of Washington has not yet completed a study to determine whether consumption of those beverages are down. He added studies in other cities and countries with sugary drinks taxes show a decline in consumption and people switching to healthier drinks.

Carlyle is optimistic his legislation will gain traction next legislative session, but cautioned the soda industry is very powerful in the state Legislature. The industry is not as influential in Washington cities and towns, he added, which is why maintaining local control is important.